Connie lathers a small brown Terrier in a waist-high tub. She wears a T-shirt and waterproof apron, and wields the gallon jug of shampoo as though it were much lighter. Her face is pink and shines from the heat of dog dryers and exertion.
“She’s a little mad about this whole ordeal,” Connie says, referring to the bather, Bella, as she massages soap down the dog’s legs and paws, rinses, and scrubs her muzzle with no-tears shampoo. She works quickly with the confident, gentle touch of a seasoned pro.
She is a pro. Mawyer has been working with dogs since 1995, and, if all goes well, she’ll continue until her release date, which is currently set for 2017. An inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle, she is one of 13 women working in the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP). Only a select few of the total inmate population of more than 800 learn kennel management and grooming skills and provide these services to the public.
On the face of it, PPPP is a simple voc/ed program, preparing women to work in the pet-care industry after they are released. But unlike toiling in the kitchen or the laundry, or participating in horticulture, construction or welding workshops, women in this program work with warm, furry, affectionate creatures. In prison, that makes all the difference.
“Because most of the programs deal with inanimate objects, you don’t continue to grow emotionally,” says Mawyer, who was 21 when she began serving her time. “This program has allowed me to mature. I think I would have shut down. You can’t do that with dogs. You have to leave your emotions open, therefore you’re emotionally learning and growing.”
In addition to her grooming duties, Mawyer is training a pair of rescue dogs, Alaska and Stella, to become service, seizure or therapy dogs, or to live as pets. Most program participants eventually train rescue and shelter dogs.
“It seems like no matter what dogs have gone through,” Mawyer says, “they still come out being very loving, helpful and ready to do something for you. That’s the miracle of working with dogs.” It’s tough to reconcile Mawyer’s crime with her compassion and insight, except to imagine that she illustrates the rehabilitation ideal.
The Power to Change
The Prison Pet Partnership Program was the inspiration of Sister Pauline Quinn, who is generally credited with being the first person to create a dog-training program for prisoners in this country. Her own early days were as fraught as any felon’s. As a child, Sister Pauline suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse; ran away from home; was homeless off and on, and in and out of institutions; gave up a child conceived though rape; and even resorted to self-mutilation. Eventually, she became a Catholic and a Dominican nun. But she credits the companionship of a German Shepherd named Joni with setting her on the road to mental health.
“It is important to feel and be loved, and a dog can do that for you,” Sister Pauline said in an interview with Lifetime Television, which made a film about her, Within These Walls, in 2001. “This is the first step in healing; then you can continue on and grow to even greater things.”
It is this simple idea that persuaded Dr. Leo Bustad, a veterinarian studying the human-animal bond at Washington State University, and a pioneer in animal-assisted therapy, to advocate for Sister Pauline’s dog-training program, which she launched at the Gig Harbor prison in 1981.
By 1991, the private nonprofit organization, working under contract to the Department of Corrections, expanded its mission to include kennel and grooming services. Inmate trainers have helped place more than 700 dogs in working partnerships or in homes as “paroled pets.” And the program has been emulated, at least in part, at prisons all around the country and internationally.