Dogs, Humans Strive For Second Chance

Shannon Plummer is a 53-year-old heroin addict serving time at the James A. Musick Jail in Orange County for felony drug possession. Frosty is her year-old roommate, a lanky white Labradoodle mix whose time was up at the county animal shelter. “I like to say we saved each other,” said Plummer, her blue eyes sparkling as she scratches the pooch’s head. Behind bars for the first time, the lifelong addict had hit her lowest point in life and wanted to change. Janette Thomas gave her the chance through Pathways to Hope, a nonprofit that matches shelter dogs that have behavioral issues with similarly afflicted humans who might learn something from the training experience. “He gave me self-esteem,” Plummer says of her work rehabilitating Frosty. “He gave me confidence and unconditional love. I felt a huge responsibility not to do him wrong.”

Canines Offering Life Lessons and Rewards, or COLLAR, is one of four dozen programs offered in the Orange County jails, but one that reaches even those not directly involved in it. The program gives animals and humans a second chance at a free life, helps both learn impulse control, and provides select Orange County residents with well-behaved companions. Janette seeks donations to keep the program afloat, and suggests a $500 donation from adoptive families. She also searches the Orange County animal shelters for prospective program pups whose days are numbered. Jail officials say that the presence of dogs in the 75-person dorms has been a calming influence on everyone housed there, which is opposite what they had feared. “We couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” said Sean Shea, the correctional program technician for the Musick Jail, located on what once a farm nestled near the foothills of east Irvine. The jail’s work program deputies identify potential participants who have exhibited maturity and good behavior while incarcerated. Janette starts with a four-week lecture before the dogs come in so that she can evaluate whether the offenders would be good handlers. (They must have at least four months left on their sentences to complete the program without disrupting the dog’s training.) “It’s a coveted position within the institution,” she said. “Both the dogs and the inmates have been isolated from the community for making bad choices due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of structure, discipline and respect. The goal of our program is to provide the dogs and inmates with a second chance for a fulfilling life.”

Dogs are paired with two-to-three offenders who are responsible for their care. In the classroom offenders to learn about stress and body language, then work with the canines to apply their knowledge for another two months. The dogs sleep in crates in the dorms, and are allowed outside for training and to do their business. “It’s a submissive, stressful environment and it’s hard not to transfer that stress to him,” Shannon said. Of the 60 offenders who had gone through the program between July 2013 and October 2014, just two have returned to custody. Many make friendships that endure on the outside. Some seek out grooming and training jobs.

“The ones that go through this just don’t go back,” to jail, Thomas said. On a warm October day Thomas and a few jail officials gathered near the jail to celebrate graduation day for another class of offenders, and adoption day for the dogs. “This is your one-way ticket out. We are giving you the gift of career skills and life skills. It would crush me if you came back,” Jeanette told the group. The women at this graduation said giving and receiving unconditional canine love had given them a new sense of self awareness. “This program has been a Godsend, a blessing, beyond what you can believe,” said Diana Dotson, 22, who was jailed for embezzlement and drugs and found meaning with a Havanese mix named Buddy. “It teaches you to deal with people too. When you have a job like this you are forced to get along with others in the program.”

Amid tears and goodbyes, Janette assured the women that the dogs they grew to love are going to homes where they will be appreciated. None of the program dogs have been returned to shelters – a message she wants them to take to heart. She doesn’t want the human handlers to return either. “I was thinking it was selfish to have him,” Shannon said. “I was thinking a dog would cheer me up. This is not a real great time of my life. But I was able to teach him things, and it returned some of my self esteem, which I had lost. I was an enabler, and passed along my addictive personality to my two children, but Miss Janette taught me to set boundaries.” Working the program also teaches offenders to respect members of the jail staff, who often bring in toys and other treats for the dogs. Some of those staff members were on hand at graduation to support women without a long list of positive accomplishments in life. Those that did might have been surprised that the graduates learned more from the experience than the simple execution of a sit-stay command. “I saw staff in a whole new light. They are people and they care about us and the program and want us to succeed.” Shannon said. “Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to have this program. You’ve taught us more than just training dogs.”