On Monday, February 10, six female inmates and their companions graduated from “Pawsitive Second Chances,” a six-week puppy-training program at the Yaphank Correctional Facility.
Sheriff Errol Toulon conducted the graduation ceremony in the facility’s Choose to Thrive program pod, where the program resides. The program was implemented by Toulon in December 2018 to help rehabilitate female inmates through a selection of courses. Along with using numerous outside service providers, Toulon explained he assigned “a correctional counselor that works on transitional planning with participants beginning the day they enter the facility” to help “each woman create a personal action plan.”
Pawsitive Second Chances falls under the Choose to Thrive umbrella. It was developed by Deborah Whitney, CEO and founder of Working Paws Training, Inc. in spring 2018. East Enders may already be familiar with Whitney. She worked as the director of behavior and training at the Southampton Animal Shelter.
“I myself was incarcerated, as everyone I work for or worked for is aware of. It’s actually part of how I introduce myself, so I don’t waste anyone’s time if they don’t believe in second chances or forgiveness,” she said. “This program was what got me through while I did my time in prison.”
“I thought the initiative was a homerun for everyone involved,” Sheriff Toulon said. “The puppies became more adoptable due to the training and our inmates had the opportunity to learn new skills and bond with the animal in a unique way.”
The program takes puppies as young as eight weeks old, in groups of five to six. Along with instructors, the two-hour sessions include basic obedience training, leash work, grooming, and other skills necessary to be a professional animal handler.
“The dog doesn’t ever hold anything against anyone,” Whitney said. “It’s unconditional regardless of what you, as a person, have done.”
Each animal is rescued from either U.S. kill shelters or hazardous conditions. Through the program, animals and humans obtain rewards and long-term success. While the inmates retain the unconditional sense of love that comes from a dog, they are also learning about options outside of the correctional facility. The dogs have a higher level of adoption desirability and exposure, and many continue on to the K9s for Warriors program. After training, the dogs are available for adoption through Save-A-Pet, a no kill shelter located in Port Jefferson Station.
Pawsitive Second Chances is expected to be brought to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office Riverhead Correctional Facility next. Toulon hopes to “set an example for other correctional facilities that these programs can improve safety within the facility, and reduce