New trial program pairs inmates with shelter dogs

New trial program pairs inmates with shelter dogs

Participants in the Handcuffs to Healing program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility show off their progress during a press conference Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

In a new program at Yaphank Correctional Facility, Suffolk County inmates and homeless dogs are helping each other get a second chance.

Six men in orange jumpsuits lined up on the grounds of the jail Oct. 4, each with a shelter dog at their side, and took turns walking their four-legged companions around in a large circle, demonstrating the dog’s new socialization skills along the way. With a quick command, the dogs either sat, stayed or laid down. One of the dogs, named Bain, an 11-month-old Rottweiler, even showed off how he can help someone get back on their feet — literally.

Participants in the Handcuffs to Healing program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility show off their progress during a press conference Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

The demonstration was all part of a presentation of Handcuffs to Healing, a pilot program that teaches low-risk, nonviolent offenders to train abandoned dogs — Rottweilers, pit bulls and German Shepherds plucked from the Brookhaven Town animal shelter.

The aim of the program, which started in mid-September, is to socialize the dogs well enough so they can be put up for adoption. But it’s also doing plenty of good for their trainers too. The inmates train the dogs three nights a week for two hours each day.

“We’re rehabilitating humans through animals,” said Michael Gould, the president and founder of Hounds Town Charities, who pitched the idea of the dog training program to Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco in the spring. “When I see inmates, I see humans. When I see these big, powerful dogs, I see animals that shouldn’t be in a shelter.”

Gould, a former commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Canine Unit, admitted these breeds of dogs are difficult to adopt out because they carry reputations of being dangerous. But they are caring, loving and now well-trained, thanks to the inmates, Gould added.

“These are among the best dogs you can come across,” he said. With a quick snap of his fingers, the dog at Gould’s side stopped and sat at attention. “Everything is low-key. There’s no crazy energy. It’s all about structure and love. Firm hand. Kind heart.”

Undersheriff Steven Kuehhas said he believes the program will reduce recidivism among the inmates, all of whom are serving a local sentence.

“This program gives the inmates the opportunity to learn responsibility,” Kuehhas said. He also added the program may help the inmate’s’ chances of employment, in an animal shelter or as a dog handler, after they leave. He called the program a win-win situation.

Jackie Bondanza, a Hounds Town representative and one of the program’s coordinators, said she’s noticed significant changes among the inmates and dogs since the program started.

“It’s been a very inspiring transformation,” she said. “When the inmates first came, they were all composed and didn’t want to be here. They’ve since really opened up and I think it’s helped build their confidence. Same with the dogs. These dogs would be sitting in cages in a shelter a majority of the day otherwise. This is incredible for them.”

Participants in the Handcuffs to Healing program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility show off their progress during a press conference Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

The inmates turned dog trainers were chosen by the sheriff’s department under the criteria of being nonviolent offenders and being physically capable of handling their canine.

One of the inmates — Joseph Dima, 36, from Bohemia — said he was thinking of his own dog back home when he signed up for the program.

“To help these dogs find a home and owners that will handle them well — that was a big thing for me,” Dima said, referring to the pit bull he was assigned to, Carl, as a loving mush. “He’s such a great dog. People get the wrong misconceptions about pit bulls. He just wants affection. All the dogs do.”

When the dogs weren’t demonstrating their new skills, they were perched next to their trainers, being petted and rubbed. During the course of the program, the dogs live at Hounds Town Charities, which is housed in Ronkonkoma. Plans are in place to continue Handcuffs to Healing after the expiration of the current six-week program as those behind it seek corporate sponsors and residents interested in adopting the dogs.

“There’s nothing like a dog to help an inmate heal,” said Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who spoke during the event. “These are six dogs and six inmates needing a fresh start. It’s a tremendous program and one we’re going to continue.”

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