Kim Imel held back tears as Spencer, a 1-year-old dachshund mix, sniffed around his new home and played with his new companions.
The dachshund was in prison – literally.
But Imel, a licensed veterinarian technician with SpokAnimal, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is more outgoing, more sociability, more playfulness, than I’ve ever seen,” Imel said, nearly overcome with emotion. “This is exactly where he needs to be.”
Spencer and Wrigley, a 1-year-old pug mix, arrived at Airway Heights Corrections Center on Thursday as part of the new Pawsitive Dog Training Program, which pairs inmates with dogs in need of better socialization and training to be adoptable.
Five inmates underwent an extensive application process to participate. None could have convictions for violent crimes against animals or children, and none could have serious infractions at the prison in at least six months even to apply.
“This is what’s happening in other facilities, and it works well,” said Rich Hewson, supervisor of the unit where the dogs will be housed. Each dog will live in a cell with its handlers and will be allowed in the community areas with up to 130 inmates.
Strict rules are in place regarding who can interact with the dogs and when, which officials say helps build respect and responsibility between the handlers and the other inmates. Handlers also will keep journals documenting their dogs’ progress.
Inmate Andy Lopez is Wrigley’s lead handler. Lopez worked with two dogs in the program while housed at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and said it was a great experience.
“It gives us responsibility. You learn patience,” he said.
He said the inmates not trained to handle the dogs “are just as excited about the dogs coming as we are.”
James Key, the prison’s associate superintendent, noted that when they brought the dogs through the commons area en route to their new homes, inmates reading, playing cards or just sitting couldn’t help but smile.
Lopez agreed. “You see that softening of the exteriors. It makes you use some emotions that maybe you might not use.”
Lopez said another handler in the program has family members who raise English bulldogs and hopes to use his training to help with the business when he’s released.
“Now when he gets out there he has a viable option instead of just going back to the same behaviors,” Lopez said.
Both dogs were brought to SpokAnimal as strays in the last few weeks. They underwent behavior assessments to make sure they could handle the stress of the new environment.
Imel said the dogs will stay for six to eight weeks depending on how their stay in prison goes, then they’ll be available for adoption.
Wrigley “needs to learn some patience. He needs to learn some impulse control, and he needs someone to help him with that,” Imel said. “With Spencer, we want to build his confidence and let him know that life is OK and life is fun.”
SpokAnimal Executive Director Gail Mackie hopes to move more dogs to the prison as the program proceeds.
“We’re intending on this being SpokAnimal West,” she said.