Giving Dogs, Inmates a New Leash on Life

Unwanted dogs are finding a safe haven in an unlikely place: prison.
By: Monica Weymouth

Tamar Paltin isn’t just looking for any dog when she visits shelters in Pennsylvania.

She’s looking for the dog cowering in his kennel, afraid to make eye contact with visitors. For the dog with a medical condition that’s too expensive to treat in an underfunded, overcrowded system. For the dog who, through no fault of his own, was overlooked and now has only hours left to live.

“We’re interested in the dogs who are most in need,” says Paltin, director of training at New Leash on Life USA. “For many of them, this is their last chance.”

The next stop for these rescued pups? Prison—and they couldn’t be happier.

New leash on life inmate with dog

New Leash is one of those ideas that’s so simple, it’s genius. Founded ten years ago on Christmas Day while CEO Marian V. Marchese was volunteering at a high-kill shelter, the nonprofit pairs dogs at risk of euthanasia with incarcerated inmates who know a thing or two about second chances. Through training and caring for the dogs, the inmates learn job skills and, once paroled, are eligible for internships in the animal care field.  The dogs, in turn, heal and learn to trust again.

“A lot of prisoners don’t get much outside contact or have an opportunity to show emotions, so this human-canine connection is important to them,” says Paltin, who notes that the inmates and dogs spend nearly all day and night together. “And it really, really helps our dogs who have had brutal pasts.”

The Dogs of New Leash

Jane is one such dog. Used as bait for a dog fighting ring, she was presumed dead when found in a dumpster. Once at the shelter, she had little hope of recovering—until, that is, Patin saw her potential. After recuperating in a foster home, she entered the program and, slowly, began to build relationships with both humans and dogs with the around-the-clock help of her handler.

“Her resilience and her ability to trust was just incredible,” says Paltin. “She’s the funniest, hulkiest lap dog—she thinks she’s five pounds, but she’s really fifty-five.”

Shanti is another dog that, without a program like New Leash on Life USA, likely wouldn’t have walked out of the shelter. Stressed to the point where she would obsessively spin in circles, she was harming herself and scaring away potential adopters. The behavior continued at the prison—until, that is, her handler crawled into her crate and spent the night soothing her.

New leash on life inmate with dog-2

“It was just amazing to see her finally relax,” says Paltin. “Finally, she felt safe.”

At the end of the semester, these dogs once deemed “unadoptable” are anything but. After intensive training and socialization, they’re more than ready to be great pets and are even prepared to pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. The only real work their forever-adopters will have to do is, in some cases, cut back on the treats.

“Some of our handlers show love by sneaking their dogs a little extra food,” admits Paltin. “Well, that and cuddles. They’re very pampered by the end.”