Last August, The Animal Shelter of Texas County (TASTC) began its “Healing Paws” program in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) South-Central Corrections Center in Licking (SCCC).

Some of the results have been noteworthy, while others are downright remarkable.

Healing Paws is TASTC’s offshoot of the “Puppies for Parole” program in which the DOC partners with animal shelters and animal advocate groups throughout the state to pair rescued dogs with offenders incarcerated at state prisons.

Entirely funded by donations and receiving no state funding, Puppies for Parole consists of a two-month training period in which dogs learn verbal commands and general obedience. Dogs and their “offender handlers” go through the rehabilitative process together, culminating with a graduation ceremony at the end of the eight weeks, during which time the dogs are administered a K-9 Good Citizenship Test they must pass.

“Offender handlers gain vocational skills and learn responsibility through the program,” DOC communications director Chris Cline said. “It also offers offenders the opportunity to repay the community.”

Puppies for Parole began Feb.1, 2010, when Jefferson City Correctional Center received the first dog. The program quickly gained notoriety in the state and received the 2010 Governor’s Award for Quality and Productivity.

Each prison institution establishes its own guidelines for offender handler status, but those guidelines are certainly linked to good behavior. TASTC president Rita Romines said the shelter and the SCCC each outlined requirements when a contract for the program was drawn up.

“Basically, they have to go through our channels and we have to go through theirs,” Romines said.

As a non-profit organization with no government affiliation, TASTC covers all Healing Paws expenses. But much of the money comes from fund-raising done at the prison by offender handlers and other inmates.

“So they’re raising money for us, but we’re giving it right back to them through the dogs,” Romines said. “It costs the taxpayers nothing; it’s great the way that works.”

Dogs in the program cannot weigh more than 60 pounds and must be spayed, neutered and current on shots. TASTC provides flea and tick treatment once a month and all other necessary medical care.

Since TASTC got involved with Puppies for Parole, less desirable dogs have been transformed into animals worthy of adoption and multiple fascinating story lines have been produced.

“We send ones that we feel need the training and maybe have been here the longest,” shelter manager Marsha Martin said. “But when they’re done, some of the things that happen are really surprising.”

Currently, eight TASTC dogs are enrolled in the program at the Licking prison.

One of the most interesting stories to come out of Healing Paws involves Houston resident Susan Higgins, who is employed as a case-worker at SCCC. She, her husband David and their four children have experienced a life-changing set of circumstances due to the program, thanks to a relationship between her three-year-old autistic daughter, Maribel, and Knuckles, a 1 1/2-year-old border collie mix and program graduate.

Being a prison employee and having heard about Puppies for Parole and Healing Paws, Higgins told institutional activities coordinator Tina Holland, who is in charge of the program at the prison, to be on the lookout for a good animal to pair with Maribel.

“She said, ‘We already have one,'” Higgins said.

Knuckles was allowed to go to the pre-school, where Maribel spends the day, and the relationship took off as soon as they were introduced.

“When she first saw him, her eyes lit up and she ran over to him and started talking to him,” Higgins said. “Autistic kids just don’t do that. I cried. It was amazing the way she reacted to that dog.”

As is the case with most autistic children, Maribel wouldn’t sleep through an entire night, waking up several times and requiring Susan’s attention. With Knuckles in the room, that’s all a memory.

“With him at the foot of her bed, she slept all night,” Higgins said. “When you haven’t slept all night in three years, well, it’s a real blessing in our lives. It really is incredible.”

Knuckles is close to becoming a certified service dog, having only the search-and-rescue portion of that program left to pass. But already, the dog somehow has a huge positive effect on the young girl.

“We can go to Walmart and she just attaches to Knuckles. If she starts to run off, he’ll sit down and act as an anchor,” Higgins said.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Knuckles’ current situation is his record at the shelter prior to his Puppies for Parole experience. He was actually adopted twice and returned both times.

“He was such a hellion,” Martin said. “The turn-around he has made is amazing.”

Two other notable Healing Paws stories involve deaf dogs.

One, a Dachsund named Zeus, was taught to recognize sign language through the program and ended up being donated to the Missouri School for the Deaf in Fulton.

Another, a Boston Terrier named Petie, will soon be on his way to Washington, D.C., after being adopted by a deaf woman there. The woman found out about Petie after a story was written about him that circulated online.

Also, the shelter recently received seven puppies from a local resident after their blue-heeler mother was hit by a car. The mother had shown up as a stray, had the litter two days later, but was then killed.

Now flourishing residents of “coddle land” (a nickname made up by an offender handler who sends e-mail updates to the shelter regarding the progress of Healing Paws animals), the pups are each in the care of an SCCC offender handler who feeds and cleans his designated charge on a scheduled basis.

The puppies are bottle-fed goats’ milk provided by a Licking woman who donated four gallons to the shelter for the specific purpose.

“It’s better than the kind you buy in the store because it still has all the nutrients in it,” Martin said.

The young dogs, many of whose eyes weren’t even open when they arrived in Licking, will remain at the prison until they reach an age where they can be adopted.

A Licking offender handler wrote an essay about Healing Paws that included an estimate of how many people have been affected by dogs in the program. Including original owners, shelter volunteers, offender handlers and other prison workers, and new families after adoption, his estimate was more than 2,000.

“And I think that’s pretty accurate,” Romines said. “This program has touched so many people. I don’t think we even realize how many.”

By all accounts, Puppies for Parole is a win-win scenario for prison inmates and dogs.

“For many of the dogs that are selected for the program it allows them a second chance — if not their only chance — to find a home,” Cline said. “The presence of the dogs at correctional institutions also boosts both staff and offender morale and provides an incentive for offenders to modify their behavior.”

TASTC’s Healing Paws brings all that home.

“This is our shining star,” Romines said. “This is one of the best things we’ve done since we opened the shelter.”

This is our shining star. This is one of the best things we’vedone since we opened the shelter.”

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