When Sister Pauline Quinn first started the Prison Pet Partnership in 1981, her goal was to pass on something that had helped change her life.
That something was a dog.
“I had a really difficult life and a dog helped change my life,” Sister Pauline, a Dominican nun, said. “I wanted to give something back.”
In partnership with the late Dr. Leo Bustad, former chair of Washington State University’s veterinary program, Sister Pauline started the program, called Prison Pet Partnership, at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor.
The superintendent of the facility at the time was very receptive to the program, and Sister Quinn further collaborated with Washington State University and Tacoma Community College, along with the Washington State Department of Corrections, to begin the program.
The program is now so successful that it is being expanded, said Beth Rivard, the program’s executive director.
The program, a nonprofit organization that is located on the grounds of WCCW, has two different aspects, a service-dog training program and a kennel and grooming program.
“This is not just something for offenders to do when they’re incarcerated,” Rivard said. “But something to give them a livable wage job so they can stay out and not reoffend.”
The program offers different levels of training for offenders in the program to earn, both in grooming and in training the animals. As trainers, the offenders keep the dogs with them at all times unless the dog is being socialized by community volunteers, and are primarily responsible for the animal.
Both Rivard and Sister Pauline have noted the positive change the dogs have brought to the facility and to the women themselves.
“For women in prison, it’s really an opportunity for women to be women,” Rivard said. “Women are typically caregivers and nurturers, and you don’t get an opportunity to do that in prison.”
Sister Pauline agreed: “It teaches the inmates how to become ‘others-centered.’ That’s what teaches us to be better people. To reach out and help others.”
The program trains both service dogs for clients with limited mobility and other special needs, but also provides basic training to rescued dogs from local shelters as part of its Paroled Pets, which provides family animals.
This is where Prison Pet Partnership is expanding its program.
By accepting purpose-bred dogs to train as service dogs, the program can rescue more animals from area shelters that would make good pets, but do not have the temperament for service work, Rivard said.
“This will help us meet the needs of our clients who are on our wait list (for service dogs),” she said. “It allows us to rescue the dogs that really need to be rescued.”
Sister Pauline added that by bringing in dogs that have been raised to function as service dogs, it removes the disappointment for offenders who might be training a shelter dog, only to find out the animal’s temperament did not fit the role.
“It makes it really hard for the inmates to train a dog and not make it,” she said.
The positive effects of the program can be seen in the offenders still within the facility and also in those who have been released.
“There’s something about people in animal care fields that are pretty darn forgiving,” Rivard said. “Most people in the field are all about rescuing animals and giving them a second chance, and most feel the same way about offenders.”
Many area groomers will even contact the program looking for recent releases and graduates of the program to hire because of the work ethic and quality of training the offenders receive in the program.
“Grooming is a really decent, livable-wage job,” Rivard said. “It’s definitely something they can do not only here but also when they get out of here.”
Similar programs have now spread not only throughout the prisons in Washington state, but have grown through the United States and even overseas in countries such as Italy, Argentina and Poland.
“What I’m happy about is the Department of Corrections in Washington state has been helpful in getting these programs started more than any other state,” Sister Pauline said. “This gives inmates an opportunity to learn a skill and make some money when they get out.”
Sister Pauline, now 73, supports the program at WCCW so much that she transferred her own service dog, Pax — the Latin word for peace — to the facility to be trained.
“I wanted him to be a peacemaker,” she said of her almost 4-year-old golden retriever, who travels the world with her as she facilitates other prison pet programs, works with refugees and even went along to meet Pope Francis.
“I’m just thrilled they were able to continue this program because it’s just so important to me,” Sister Pauline said. “I always wanted the program to become ‘others-centered.’ For inmates to learn how to reach out and help others.”
For more information on Prison Pet Partnership