Project Pooch: Where Second Chances Are Real

Pairing behaviorally challenged shelter dogs with incarcerated men.
By Stella Bouldin, January 2019
Photos Courtesy of Project POOCH

Photos Courtesy of Project POOCH

For JG, Project POOCH was a life-changing influence. As he recalls, “I’ve always had a hard time committing to something, so I believed this program would help me overcome this destructive habit. I believed this program helped me learn things about myself that I never knew. I wanted to have a good work ethic and prove to myself and everyone else that I do have what it takes to succeed in life.”

What is Project POOCH? To start with, its full name is Positive Opportunities Obvious Change with Hounds, and it’s a unique, triple-win program that pairs behaviorally challenged shelter dogs with incarcerated young men ages 18 to 25 to create adoptable canine good citizens.

Mentored and trained by professionals, the young men learn to care for and train the dogs. They gain valuable personal and vocational skills that will help them become responsible and productive members of society, and develop compassion and respect for all life. The dogs gain good behaviors and new forever homes.

The innovative program was founded in 1993 in Woodburn, Ore., by Joan Dalton, who at the time was vice principal at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility’s William Lord High School. Though she started small —one dog, one young man— over the years Project POOCH has grown, changing (and saving) the lives of hundreds of dogs and men alike. In a nice bit of symmetry, the very first young man to complete the program is now in his early 40s and uses his dog to connect with young kids susceptible to joining gangs.

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Participants must meet eligibility criteria to join and continue in the program. They also agree to give a portion of the money they earn from adoption fees and sales of handmade crafts and other items to victim restitution funds and local charities.

I wanted to learn to love others and my dog teaches me that every day. I didn’t know I could have that impact on another life. —MT

The young men work with their dogs daily, using principles of positive reinforcement and behavior modification. As they manage their dog’s behavior, they learn to manage their own. They are also earning school credits, learning solid work habits and gaining valuable vocational skills they can use when released.

For many of the participants, this is their first experience of unconditional love, mutual trust and a positive relationship. Both the dogs and the young men need that self-confidence to build a better future. It is amazing to watch the changes over a short period of time in both halves of the partnerships.

Participants are closely monitored throughout the program. Among other things, they must consistently demonstrate reduced incidences of aggression toward others. Eight to 10 young men are enrolled per program session, and they can stay in it as long as they follow the rules and show progress in teaching the dogs what they need to know to pass the canine good citizen test.

Professional research supports the program’s success. While at Pepperdine University, Sandra Merriam, EdD, conducted structured interviews of its staff and young men. As she notes in her paper, “Based on survey responses, youth who participate in the project showed marked improvements in the areas of respect for authority, social interactions and leadership.” Participants reported changes and improvements in the areas of honesty, empathy, nurturing, social growth, understanding, self-confidence and pride of accomplishment. Recidivism was zero. (Copies of her paper are available via email at doctorsand@msn.com.)

The skills learned in the program follow the young men as they move back into society. For example, former Project POOCH participant BB is still utilizing the dog-care and -training skills learned at MacClaren. Following his release, BB applied to become a service puppy raiser; quickly approved, he was assigned to work with a Labradoodle puppy named Quimby, who was to be trained as a service dog for an autistic child. Quimby slept in a crate next to BB’s bed and went everywhere with him, even to his job. Expenses related to Quimby’s vocational or educational training were paid for by the Oregon Youth Authority, while the rest were covered by BB from money he earned working in the community.

BB says he learned patience and responsibility during his time with POOCH, as well as many other valuable skills that he brought to raising a dog who will one day help an autistic child. He plans to continue working with dogs in the future. “They made a huge difference in my life. I want to pay that forward.”

To protect their privacy, participants are identified only by their initials.

Stella Bouldin, a freelance writer originally from the Pacific Northwest, enjoys traveling and experiencing new cultures; she is currently living in Ecuador.

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