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‘Pups at the Pen’ program gives dogs, inmates new lease on life

Two homeless middle-aged brothers from Tonawanda were brought into the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, where they were shown to their new homes – in a women’s housing unit.

The brothers, Nicky and Maxie, are 9-year-old Shetland Sheepdogs whose arrival at the jail a week ago started an innovative program that matches women inmates with dogs from the SPCA Serving Erie County. The goal is to improve the lives of both.

Almost immediately, Facility Superintendent Thomas Diina saw changes in the inmates participating in the pilot program that was announced Tuesday morning at the jail.

“The inmates have been absolutely phenomenal, so caring and nurturing,”he said. “It’s been very cool to see. You would never expect this in a jail.”

Diina said the program, called “Pups at the Pen,” is modeled after one in the Albany County Correctional Facility called the Steps To Adoption Readiness (STAR) Partnership.

At the Erie County Correctional Facility, each dog will have a primary inmate trainer and one or two backup trainers, although everyone in the 15-woman unit will have a role in providing reinforcement to the dogs. Once a week, an SPCA trainer will work with the inmates and dogs, then leave goals that the inmate-canine pairs will demonstrate the next week.

The dogs, which will stay in the jail for six or eight weeks, are selected from those that need extra attention, have special needs, or “just aren’t doing well in the shelter,” said Gina Browning, director of public relations for the SPCA.

The inmates could use the SPCA-taught positive reinforcement techniques to work on such common issues as leash-pulling or jumping, she said.

Besides the weekly training, the dogs will have daily access to an enclosed grassy area next to the housing unit, said Diina, or an inside space where lessons can be held during bad weather. And because, along with Howard, Diina and Undersheriff Mark Wipperman are “dog people,” the outdoor training area has been dubbed “Bandit and Lucy’s Dog Park” for Diina’s late collie and Wipperman’s late Labrador.

Diina said the program “benefits the inmates because they learn some personal responsibility. All of us who have dogs know that it’s a full-time job. They get satisfaction out of having a sense of purpose; you’re not just in jail, you’re doing something productive. And the dog benefits because it will be a more adoptable animal. It’s learning obedience, will be calmer, and hopefully will make a much easier transition to a forever home.”

Each inmate accepted into the exclusive program was screened and signed an agreement acknowledging the possible hazards of working with dogs. Diina said he chose women inmates to offer something special to the women in the mostly male population.

Inmates in all the jail programs, said Diina, are “highly motivated to be on their best behavior.”

“We know that animals can touch people’s hearts in a way that other people can’t, so we’re hoping that it will have that effect,” said Browning.

“Pups in the Pen” is being run at no cost to taxpayers, said Diina, with the SPCA providing food, veterinary care, sleeping crates and training.

“I couldn’t be happier with this program. It is a benefit not only to the sheriff’s office and the inmates, but it is a benefit to the SPCA as well, and really to any animal-lover out there.”

“The goal of this program is to provide new skills to the inmates and the dogs while preparing both for a new life,” said Howard. “If one inmate learns skills for a new job and one dog is adopted, then our efforts are all worth it.”