Female inmates help train shelter dogs with $10K grant

Sparky, a former shelter dog, is one of the first graduates from a New Leash on Life training program involving women inmates.

It may have been her pronounced underbite that kept Sparky from getting adopted. But now, the mixed-breed rescue is about to become a service dog.

New Leash on Life, which pairs adoptable shelter dogs with prison inmates, just received a $10,000 grant earmarked for female prisoners from The Transition Network, a group of professional women, through its fund at The Philadelphia Foundation, the group announced. 

Sparky, one of the group's first graduates, and will soon become the service companion to a disabled woman, said Rob Rosa, Associate Vice President for Prison Programs for New Leash on Life. The 40-pound canine was a perfect match for the program, which looks for young dogs who want to learn.

The training program is held at the Alternative and Special Detention, a division of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons on State Road. It lasts 12 weeks and the dogs live in the cells with the prisoners. The women provide the dogs obedience training and socialization and at the same time gain experience that will help with future employment opportunities. So far eight inmates have helped train four rescue dogs, said Rosa.

Once their sentence is complete, the women then continue to work in jobs in the animal care field as part of their post-release programs - all paid for with the grant, said Rosa.

The dogs and women form a special bond, said Chris Berrrettini, New Leash on Life grant writer.

Rosa, a former inmate at Graterford Prison, knows first hand the difference the dog training program can make.

He had an "ah ha moment" when he first received a shelter dog to train. Rosa took his two-year-old black lab mix, Terp, outside for a potty break when the dog vaulted the prison fence and raced down the road.

"I gave chase," said Rosa. With sirens blaring and lights flashing, Rosa was hotly pursued by armed prison guards in a truck until they realized it was the dog - not Rosa - making the break for freedom.

"You almost got me killed," Rosa recalled saying to the dog after the two were back in his cell. The dog, crept out of his crate, put his head on Rosa's lap and looked up with puppy dog eyes, he said.

"I knew right then this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Rosa said.