Put Nevada State Prison inmates with eight "renegade" puppies and what do you get? Officials at the Nevada State Prison and the Nevada Humane Society said they are hoping it's a match made in heaven.
Puppies on Parole, a new program initiated by the Nevada State Prisons in conjunction with the humane society, starts Aug. 1. The eight inmates chosen for this program got a taste of what's in store during an introductory session Wednesday with Linda Hoke, a humane society behavior programs coordinator.
Dressed in denim and sitting behind a long table, inmates couldn't keep smiles off their faces as about six mixed-breed dogs bounced, slept, played and provided the chaos.
"It went very well," Hoke said. "The inmates seemed to understand the concept and were very open to the animals. I was pleased."
According to James Baca, associate warden of programs, Puppies on Parole will provide many advantages for inmates, connecting them with the community and giving them an opportunity to make a contribution.
"Some inmates have been within these walls for over 20 years," he said. "In all that time, they've never had an opportunity to work with or be around animals. This program also builds their self-esteem and aids in relationships between staff and prisoners."
"It's been a long time since I've been around any animals," said inmate Brandon Talbert. "I'm looking forward to having a companion and eventually, the dog will find a new home."
Hoke said the program will be a wonderful adjunct to the humane society's own "Head Start" program. Many families are overwhelmed by untrained shelter animals, ending in disappointment and often a returned puppy. In some cases, shelters see a 60 percent to 70 percent return rate, according to Hoke.
Untrained humane society puppies receive both training and socialization with the help of volunteers, a project that has met with overwhelming success. All trained puppies have found good homes, but volunteers often don't have the time needed for more challenging puppies.
"Many of these dogs spent their lives in back-yard pens with little socialization," she said.
The dogs chosen for this program will range in age from 6 months to 3 years -- very friendly, with no manners.
Initiated by Prison Director Jackie Crawford, the program is one of just a few on the West Coast. Nevada State Prison Warden Mike Budge said his primary reference for setting up the program was the National Education for Assistance Dog program, based in West Boylston, Mass.
"This is a new frontier for us," he said. "The humane society sets certain criteria, and will inspect the operation regularly."
According to Baca, 70 of the approximately 700 inmates at the Nevada State Prison applied for this all-volunteer program. A blend of offenders was chosen for the project, most of them long-term inmates, to provide stability for the animals and help standardize the process.
The project will be housed in cell block five, once known as death row. The inmates hold full-time jobs at prison, but will spend the balance of their time with the puppies, their mission to socialize and teach basic commands.
On weekends, the animals will go home with staff for socialization on "the outside," including trips to parks, shopping centers and other special events. Humane society officials will inspect the operation regularly and when the dogs are ready, they will receive a special designation. The puppy goes back to the shelter for adoption and is replaced with a new one.
If the project is successful, there are plans to expand it to the High Desert State Prison in Las Vegas. The program could eventually include more specialized training of service dogs, those trained to assist people who are deaf or physically disabled, according to Budge.
"Of all of the projects we're doing here, this is my favorite," he said. "If we can save eight dogs every 3 to 6 months, it'll be worth it."
Those interested in adopting a trained dog or puppy can apply at the Nevada Humane Society, 200 Kresge Way, in Sparks. For information, call 331-5770.