- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

STATE FARM, Va. — Ignoring a red fire hydrant with steely resolve, four abandoned dogs transformed into pillars of the canine community wagged, panted and drooled as they graduated yesterday from a prison prep school.

After eight weeks of instruction for up to six hours a day, Alley, Shaggy, Tasha and Terry heeled, sat and rolled over to the delight of about 75 people looking on within the razor-wire-topped fences of the James River Correctional Center.

Inmates locked up for crimes ranging from robbery to malicious wounding turned the dogs into lovable, well-mannered pets that are adopted by people as far away as New York.

The Pen Pals program, begun in April 2001, is designed to lower the euthanasia rate at public pounds, provide job skills to inmates and teach prisoners respect for life.

Of the 60 dogs that have started the James River program, all but one have completed it, said Catherine Leach, director of Pen Pals for Save Our Shelters, an animal protection group that funds and operates the program.

“He was nervous, he was barking, maybe a little too high strung for living in prison,” Miss Leach said. Like the other dogs, however, he still found a home outside prison.

Tasha, a 2-year-old purebred Siberian husky, was the 10th dog trained by senior inmate trainer Anthony Orange.

“She was a little stubborn the first two or three weeks,” Orange said. “She would bolt.”

On graduation day, Tasha was on her best behavior, complying with all commands and even ignoring two pieces of hot dog placed on the back of her paws until Orange gave her permission to eat.

Tasha also apparently has a rudimentary knowledge of English. Asked by Orange how old she was, Tasha dutifully barked twice.

Steve Marcus of Richmond has adopted Tasha as a companion for his other female husky. He met Orange for the first time on graduation day.

“It’s incredible what they’ve done with them,” Mr. Marcus said. “I think it’s the greatest program I’ve ever heard of for saving dogs from euthanasia.”

Shaggy, of uncertain lineage, wound up in prison after his owner was shot to death, said inmate trainer Jay Earney.

The 2-year-old flawlessly performed all the commands — blindfolded. “It takes a special dog to do it. It takes a confident dog to do it,” Earney said.

Participating inmates receive no compensation but provide training that could cost as much as $1,000, Miss Leach said. The inmates must be on honor status to get into the program, which is led by professional trainer Pat Lacy. All expenses, including food, collars and leashes, are picked up by Save Our Shelters.

A fire hydrant served as an unintended centerpiece for the graduation ceremony on the prison lawn, but the dogs showed no interest in it. Roger Walz, the prison operations officer, insisted it was only a coincidence that the dogs were lined up behind the hydrant, part of the fire safety system. “This is the best place we have to do this,” he said.

The graduation ceremony was taped by the Animal Planet cable channel, which plans to show a one-hour show on Pen Pals early next year.

The training program was expanded this summer to the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and the Botetourt Correctional Unit. Later this month, a Pen Pals program will start at Buckingham Correctional Center.

James River Warden Sam Pruett said the program has had a positive influence on prison life.

“As an animal lover myself, I think having animals in the institution … contributes to the overall morale of inmates and staff,” he said.

The program has a down side for the inmate trainers, however.

“They live with you. They sleep at the foot of your bed,” trainer Wes Adkins said of the dogs. “It’s difficult to see them leave.”

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