LOS LUNAS — Hoping to address two problems with one partnership, three groups are working together to get abandoned puppies and adult dogs ready for their forever families and to provide inmates with a sense of purpose and responsibility.
About a year ago, the Valencia County Animal Shelter, the nonprofit Viva New Mexico Rural Animal Rescue and the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility teamed up to help dogs and men.
“The shelter staff doesn’t have a lot of extra time to work with and train the dogs that come into the shelter,” said Ashley Pedroncelli, Viva director. “A lot of other prison programs and shelters do this kind of program, with a dedicated pod of inmates.”
Dogs and puppies that are healthy and good candidates for adoption are taken from the Valencia County Animal Shelter to the prison in Los Lunas and placed with inmates in one of the minimum security units and in the mental health treatment center.
The animals are spayed and neutered, and receive the necessary shots before being transferred to the prison, said VCAC director Jess Weston.
“They will get some basic training but more than anything, they’ll get socializing,” Weston said of the dogs. “This gets them out of the shelter without euthanizing them. Programs like this have worked across the nation and have been highly successful. I hope this one will follow suit.”
Ralph Lucero, CNMCF’s mental health treatment center unit manager said the 13-month program has been a success so far.
“I’ve seen the inmates grow. It gives them something to care for, makes them more attentive,” Lucero said. “This is our fourth group of eight dogs and to my knowledge, all but two of them have been successfully adopted.”
Viva sends in a trainer to teach the men how to train the dogs in simple commands, such as “sit” and “stay,” and to perform tasks such as walking on a leash, Pedroncelli said. The dogs are also potty trained and crate trained by the inmates.
Puppies stay with the inmates for 10 weeks and adult dogs for 12 weeks before returning to Viva.
“Once (the dogs) are done with the program, they come to Viva for adoption or transport to one of our out-of-state partners,” she said. “We also hope it will teach the men skills and give them a chance to offer compassion and empathy to creatures other than themselves.”
Adult dogs are placed with inmates in the mental health unit and as the training progresses, the inmates are allowed to take the dogs to other units.
“They will go into the treatment unit and the segregation unit, and we’ll open up the food slots so the inmates can pet and interact with the dogs,” Lucero said. “This has made a change not only in the behavior of the inmates in the mental health unit, but in the inmates in other units, too. Disciplinary incidents are down.”
Each dog is assigned a primary and secondary handler within the mental health unit, and all the men must have clear conduct to be a part of the program.
While the goal of the program is to teach the dogs basic commands, some have learned additional tricks such as giving a high-five or jumping through literal hoops.
“We even had one that was accidentally trained to detect low blood sugar. The dog was with him for about four weeks, when one day he wouldn’t let him get up off his bunk,” Lucero said. “The dog kept pushing him back down. He finally realized he was feeling off and ate something, then the dog let him get up.”
The program is self sufficient and doesn’t rely on state funding. The inmates formed the Four Paws Club and pay monthly dues of $5 to support the program. In addition, the adult probation and parole department donates monthly and the University of New Mexico is a frequent supporter.
“These guys are proud to work with the dogs,” Lucero said.
Four Paws president Kenneth Culwell said being in the program teaches the members new skills, the dog training, that can be put to use once they are released.
“We are learning responsibility; it’s not just us we have to take care of,” Culwell said. “I’ve been in the unit since the beginning, and it definitely relieves stress. This is really helping the other guys and myself with our mental health issues. It has calmed the pod and reduced acting out.”
The club’s vice president, Anthony Cobb, said working with the dogs has taught him patience.
“It gets us ready to be functioning when we are released,” Cobb said. “My main goal is to keep the cycle going, keep the program going.”
By training the dogs and getting them ready for adoption is a way to give back to the community, Culwell said.
Working with the dogs gives Robert Vasquez a reason to look forward to every day.
“I’m responsible for something and that’s motivation to do better,” Vasquez said.
Dr. Carol Saur, psychiatrist in charge of the mental health unit, said in her opinion, working with the dogs teaches the men not only responsibility but about relationships.
“If an inmate is having trouble relating to people, he will often be able to relate to the dogs. I think it encourages compassion which is good,” Saur said. “It’s also a positive for the people who work here, to have the interaction with the animals. I’ve found it to be very calming to the inmates and staff, and really improves the working environment. I love to see the dogs, even though I’m a cat person.”
The men in Unit II, a minimum security unit, use many of the same words as the men in the mental health unit to describe their work with puppies they do for 10 weeks — responsibility, patience, calm.
Juan Villela, a Valencia County resident and dog breeder and trainer on the outside, said he’s seen dogs and puppies turned over to the shelter many times that simply hadn’t been trained.
“People get rid of them if they don’t act right. We help get these puppies ready for a family; they are already adjusted and trained,” Villela said. “It’s really been positive. You see inmates talk to each other more. Guys who probably wouldn’t talk to each other otherwise.”
Cheryl Luna, the deputy warden’s secretary, oversees the puppy program and is very proud of the work the men are doing.
“I’ve seen them becoming more responsible. There’s empathy and they are working together,” Luna said. “We get a lot of community support. Probation and parole and UNM donate regularly; we wouldn’t be able to do it without their support.”
While the dogs and puppies in the other two units will be put up for adoption through Viva once the training is done, there is a special group of inmates and dogs that will never be separated.
The men in the prison’s seminary unit are paired with and train dogs who help them deliver their message of redemption and comfort to their fellow inmates.
“We came here as part of the seminary and the dogs are just one of the tools we can use,” said Elden Lopez. “We take the dogs into the segregation units and they open doors.”
“They open up hearts,” said Raymond Lucero.
The dogs can be a way into the hearts and minds of men who are closed off, Larry Pone says.
“They give us another way to approach these guys. They are hard, tough, shut down,” Pone said. “The dogs are a way to engage them.”
When the men leave the prison, the dogs will go with them.
“It’s like raising a kid. It’s taught me patience and changed the culture here,” Lucero said. “We want to reach as many men as we can and let them know, God loves them.”
The dogs also benefit the men personally, said Michael Guzman.
“She (his dog, Cileo) has helped me retrain my thoughts,” Guzman said. “I’ve been in prison almost 39 years. I get to take her with me when I leave. I’ve learned to be patient.”
The dogs part of the seminary program are all certified comfort dogs, Lucero said. One of the duties of the seminary inmates is to give comfort to the men in the long-term care unit.
“When the time comes, the men come up with a plan and hold a 24-hour watch,” he said. “They take the dogs in with them so the inmate doesn’t die alone.”