Some dogs know too well what it’s like to live in a cage.
There are those who have spent their lives in a box, bred to be butchered in parts of Asia. And there are those who live a hair’s breadth from a final fateful walk to the end — the "death row" dogs who end up at a kill shelter.
Maybe that’s why so many dogs in Pawsitive Change — a program that pairs long-term inmates with rescued dogs — seem so at ease when they arrive at the prison.
Or maybe it’s because the people they meet there so desperately want a second chance, too. In any case, it’s a marriage made in max-security heaven.
The idea behind the program — run by California-based Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue — is to rehabilitate both dog and human, from the inside out.
"What we’re doing is giving them a chance," Zach Skow, founder of Marley’s Mutts, tells MNN. "And what they’ve shown us is remarkable. They’ve really taken some of our most difficult dogs and absolutely transformed them.
"In the process, they transform themselves."
The dogs, hailing from China, Korea, and Thailand, as well as California kill shelters, spend 14 weeks in the constant care of inmates at high-security state facilities.
"They’re almost all violent offenders," Skow says. "They almost all have been in prison most of their lives."
But a funny thing happens when these dogs and prisoners come together. Men become boys. And dogs become puppies.
Like Brandon, a resident of North Kern State Prison, beams boyish enthusiasm when he talks about Fat Joe.
"Thank you to everyone who truly believes in us."
Then there’s Hunter, a self-described loner, who opened up his heart to a dog — and gained friends along the way.
"I’m talking to a lot more people in this program," he says. "I’ve got a lot, a lot of friends now."
What’s more, through the Instagram videos, the inmates are reaching out — in a way — to a world that may have closed the door too early on their lives, including estranged family members.
"You just wouldn’t believe it," Skow says. "The things that have happened between families. We’ve reunited families that haven’t spoken to each other in decades.
"They go on Instagram and they see their family saving lives and it totally humanizes them and it makes people re-calibrate how they pre-judged inmates in the past."
Over the course of the program, every dog is trained for Canine Good Citizen Certification, a rigorous test that "demonstrates a level of proficiency that’s pretty damned high."
Given a purpose in life, these dogs run with it — and win a lot of hearts along the way. They will all be adopted, many of them by inmates.
Jason, for instance, has already adopted his dog, Smokey. When he gets out of prison in a week or so, after a 13-year stint, Smokey will be waiting for him.
Another prisoner, James, has a sweetheart waiting for him on the outside, too. After 25 years at Corcoran, he gets out in a year-and-a-half. His dog will be waiting for him.
"The whole point of the program is to tear down walls that have been up for a long time. Emotional walls. Walls to inner progress," Skow says.
In prison, those walls can be painfully necessary.
"It’s a very dangerous place to feel," Skow explains. "If you open yourself up to feeling, you open yourself up to danger and vulnerability. Which doesn’t prepare you for life on the outside."
Indeed, life on the outside — at least a healthy, functional one — is just the opposite.
"It’s about giving and receiving love, talking about what you feel, talking about how you feel."
And who better to teach us that than a dog — an animal who can hail from the most horrific experience and still greet the world with an open heart and wagging tail?
"We take the worst of the worst from a variety of places," Skow explains. "Some of our dogs are coming from the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. Some are coming from slaughterhouses in South Korea. The majority of them are coming from high-kill shelters here in Kern County."
And they leave all that baggage at the prison gate.
"What everyone in the program will tell you is it’s the best time they've ever done," Skow says. "It’s the most hope they’ve had in their lives. It’s the most light they’ve had in their lives. It’s the most they’ve ever laughed."
Of course, the sad symmetry of it all isn’t lost on Skow.
"These are dogs who are used to being housed in cells," he says. "Throwaway dogs that are being used to rehabilitate throwaway humans who are used to being kept in a cage."
And yet, when they meet, the first thing both dog and human do — is smash that cage around their hearts.
And learn to love again.
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