Only a few months ago the outlook for Ronny, the Chihuahua mix, looked grim. He came to the Oneida County Humane Society (OCHS) from a shelter in California where he was rescued minutes before he was to be euthanized. As a very young pup he was already skittish, extremely frightened, timid and nippy, a sure sign that his early life had not been a happy one.
But a program taking place at the McNaughton Correctional Center is not only changing Ronny’s life but his human friends as well. New Beginnings is an aptly named program that pairs up troubled canines from OCHS with inmates at McNaughton, who teach these dogs what love, discipline and affection, is all about. Since the program’s beginning in May, it is seeing some remarkable success. “Three of the dogs that have gone through this program have already been adopted,” said Bria Swartout, director of OCHS. “It’s unlikely they would have found a home as soon as they did without the training they got through New Beginnings.
The idea to bring this program to McNaughton was instigated by John Johnson, who is a public defender in Oneida County and his colleague Mary Hogan, who is a staff attorney. John also has a prison ministry, bringing hope and the Word of God to several penal institutions throughout this area including McNaughton. “There was a similar program to New Beginnings at a prison in Green Bay and I thought it would be a good fit at McNaughton,” John said. Mary also worked diligently with the unending paperwork and sometimes difficult obstacles to make New Beginnings a reality.
Once the necessary approvals were obtained from the Department of Corrections, Brad Kosbab, McNaughton Correctional Center superintendent, opened up New Beginnings to inmates that were suitable and agreeable to give it a try. “We have more guys that want to be part of this than we do dogs,” he said. “It’s been very positive for everyone involved so far and it has positively changed the atmosphere here for the better.”
The program works in six to eight week shifts. All of the dogs selected need some TLC, more socialization skills or basic training manners. Two inmates are selected as a canine’s primary trainers. The dog stays in their room throughout the program but receives plenty of attention from other inmates as well. “Many of the guys here work off campus at different jobs so when they are gone we have walkers that take the dogs out during the day,” said Brad. “They jog with them or just play. It gives the dogs more exposure to different people and is good for their socialization skills.”
Carol Lofquist, a professional dog trainer who operates TLC Dog Training in Eagle River, is also part of the program. Every Friday Carol comes to the center where she helps the inmates learn about dog training techniques and explains what each dog may need to succeed.
And while it’s obvious the canines are benefitting from New Beginnings, the inmates themselves are also finding having dogs around is a positive in their rehabilitation. For inmate trainer Joel Furst, Ronny has been a welcome challenge. “You would not believe what this dog was like when he first came here,” he said, as he fondly pets his friend. “He couldn’t even walk on a leash. He’s totally different now.”
That is evident as this tiny, amber colored pooch romps and gambols with his pals in a big fenced in play area the inmates built especially for this program. Here all the dogs can run, play fetch and interact with other inmates who come to get a little doggie fix of their own.
Currently there are six dogs in the program and Brad feels this will probably be the maximum at any one time. After six to eight weeks the dogs are taken back to OCHS, where they have a much better chance of going home with a loving family.
In addition, the inmate trainers are also required to keep a written journal of their dog’s progress throughout its time at McNaughton. “That’s another positive aspect of the program,” said Brad. “The journals are good reinforcement for the inmates who can look back and read how they have brought their dog along in the training process.”
It’s only natural the inmates get attached to these pups, but they also know they are more likely to find good homes because of the work and love they have given their furry friends. “If what Ronny has learned here gets him a good home faster, that’s all I care about,” said Joel. “That’s my primary focus.”
And though the dogs are learning new skills daily, they are also unwittingly teaching their human trainers a few life lessons of their own. Inmate Matt Vissers interacts with all the pooches in the program. He spends many hours walking the dogs around the facility. “I’m learning some new skills with this program,” he said. “I have a ton of community service to perform when I get out and I think I may do that at a shelter. I feel I can put the knowledge I’ve learned here to good use.”
Ryan Zepnick feels the same. “I’ve had dogs in the past so this is very rewarding for me,” he said. “Having dogs here that need help really helps us too. They teach us how to stretch our wings of compassion and it feels good to be able to do that again.”