By Natalia Radcliffe
“Happiness is a warm puppy,” Charles M. Schulz once said.
Nothing can instigate laughter faster than interacting with a lovable ball of fur.
Perhaps it is the loving innocence of dogs, or those big expressive eyes looking into your soul that gives them their therapeutic power.
Paws For Life K9 Rescue is an organization that attempts to tap into the healing power that dogs can give. Through their prison program, inmates in the Los Angeles area work to train and rehabilitate dogs from local high-kill shelters.
Why dogs, in particular?
“They have a natural capacity to open up to each moment as it unfolds – the sights, sounds, and smells,” says the organization’s website, pawsforlifek9.org.
It can be particularly significant to people who have been judged, incarcerated, and often forgotten by the outside world.
“(A) dog comes in with no judgment towards the inmate,” said Alex Tonner, the founder of Paws For Life.
By using shelter dogs there’s a mutual benefit for both the inmates and the animals.
“Why would we not save a dog that would be euthanized for no reason whatsoever?” Tonner posed. “Just because a dog is in the shelter doesn’t mean it’s unadoptable.”
It’s a partnership that makes sense.
“It provides an avenue to save both human and animal lives through the combination of rescue and rehabilitation,” said John Grobman, director of programs for the organization.
The inmates are partnered with a shelter dog, living and working with the animal up to the end of the training period, when they present the dog to its forever home.
“My favorite part of the prison program is the end result of the dogs being trained,” said Tonner, knowing that “we have changed lives on every level.”
The program started in April of 2014, “at the California State Prison-Los Angeles County in Lancaster, a men’s maximum security prison,” Tonner said. “It was the first ever dog program in a men’s maximum-security prison in California.”
It began with five dogs and 14 inmates, and since then, has expanded its influence to three prisons within the system in California.
The training courses have also grown since five years ago. “Our program has expanded to train service dogs for military vets diagnosed with PTSD, training dogs to the level of Canine Good Citizen,” Tonner said. “And our newest program called Shelter Paws For Life, which allows people to adopt a dog that has been sheltered for long periods of time and placed in our program for free training.”
The organization takes the certification of its trainers very seriously.
“Each of our incarcerated trainers must continuously pass competency exams verifying the knowledge of training as well as an initial entrance exam based on written literature and books issued prior to their admittance into the program,” she explained. “Each incarcerated trainer must visually pass rigorous training tests with the dogs as well.”
According to Tonner, the incarcerated trainers have a combined training experience of about 664 years.
Over the summer, dog and cat food company Pets Global partnered with Paws For Life, providing all the dogs in the program with their dog food brand, Zignature.
“It closely aligns with our beliefs in giving back to the community and helping shelter animals,” said Latasha Ball of Santa Clarita, marketing coordinator for the company.
Paws for Life K9 Rescue and Pets Global have dovetailed values, according to Tonner. She explained that both her organization and Pets Global feel the need to give back to the community and help others, making the partnership mutually beneficial.
Tonner is always looking ahead, wanting to continue expanding Paws For Life’s influence.
“We don’t want to be the only ones doing this program,” she said. “We want to spread this across the nation.”
Over the next year she hopes to expand the program to another three prisons. By 2024, she wants to be in a total of 12 prisons.
As Paws For Life extends its reach, more people have the opportunity to be touched and healed through the program.
“Dogs give people self-worth,” Grobman said. “People that are incarcerated have lost their humanity, their dignity, their trust, and any type of love. Dogs think very singularly, in the moment, and provide unconditional love.”
For more information about the program, visit Pawsforlifek9.org/paws-for-life-prison-program/.