2017-01-05 / Pets

Inmates make a ‘pawsitive’ impact

By Michael Aushenker


OPERATION RUFF ROAD—The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office will launch a program this month that teaches inmates to train rescue dogs. From left are: Pivot K-9 lead trainer Rachelle Solis and her dog Ricca; rescue dog Olive, the face of the nonprofit Pivot; and RUFF Road program leaders Senior Dep. Shawn Pewsey and Senior Dep. Danielle Delpit. 
Courtesy of VCSO OPERATION RUFF ROAD—The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office will launch a program this month that teaches inmates to train rescue dogs. From left are: Pivot K-9 lead trainer Rachelle Solis and her dog Ricca; rescue dog Olive, the face of the nonprofit Pivot; and RUFF Road program leaders Senior Dep. Shawn Pewsey and Senior Dep. Danielle Delpit. Courtesy of VCSO The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office is launching a pilot program this month that will provide a second chance for both inmates and shelter dogs.

VCSO’s detention-services division has partnered with Pivot Animal Assisted Education Outreach, a Ventura-based nonprofit that works to save dogs facing euthanasia at local shelters by providing them with training that could make them more adoptable.

As part of the pilot program, eligible Ventura County inmates will teach the dogs basic obedience, house training and socialization skills through positive reinforcement. The program will also invite veterinarians and vet technicians, humane officers, dog groomers and other related professionals to visit the participating inmates and lecture about animal care.

The 16-week program will be held at both the Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula and Ventura County Juvenile Hall in Oxnard. Pivot calls the Todd Road program RUFF (Rehabilitation Utilizing Furry Friends) Road, while the Juvenile Hall version has been dubbed Pawsitive Steps.

Two teens inside Juvenile Hall will each be paired with a dog while four inmates at Todd Road Jail will each be assigned a canine to train. While an official start date has yet to be determined, the goal is to launch the program before February. Training will take place in two-hour sessions held five days a week.

“This is the first (program of its kind) in Ventura County,” said Kathy Quijada, Pivot’s cofounder. “We are in the process of picking dogs with a behaviorist.”

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office is selecting incarcerated applicants for the program based on good behavior and participation in other educational and vocational programs. Applicants must also undergo an interview with Pivot staff.

Life-savers

RUFF Road and Pawsitive Steps could literally save lives. The selected dogs, which will be provided by Ventura County Animal Services in Camarillo, might otherwise have been euthanized.

The rescue dogs—which will be trained to follow basic commands such as sitting, rolling over and no barking—will learn good behavior, trust and other skills that would make them more likely to be adopted.

Meanwhile, inmates will have the opportunity to give back to the community by training dogs to be well-behaved according to American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Pets standards. At the same time, the inmates will gain patience, confidence, self-pride, and communication and job skills that could serve them well once they are released from jail.

“The dogs will be living onsite with the inmates 24/7,” Quijada said, adding that participants will be low- to medium-level offenders, so there will be no potential for mayhem by pairing the animals with hardened criminals.

Quijada, who has been involved with rescue animals for 15 years, founded Pivot in January 2016 with fellow Ventura resident Denise de-Garmo Ritchie, who’s been working with rescue groups for 23 years.

For nearly two years, Ventura County Probation Agency division manager Joe Moore and Deputy Probation Officer Debbie Navarro had been trying to implement at Juvenile Hall similar inmate/ canine programs used in Los Angeles and in Tehachapi, Calif.

Originally, they had sought a partnership with the Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, but insurance-related issues proved problematic.

After hearing about Pivot’s literacy program, where at-risk kids read books to dogs at a Santa Paula animal shelter, Ventura County Juvenile Court contacted Pivot about installing a canine program on its premises.

Much attention to detail has gone into coordinating Pivot’s programs at the detention centers.

“You can’t have the wrong kind of collar, the wrong kind of leash,” Quijada said. “A kid can hang themselves with the leash.”

The training these canines will receive is the first step toward breaking in a therapy dog, so the hope is that inmates can go into animal-assisted professions once they’re released from jail, Quijada said.

Considering the overcrowding at the animal centers, programs such as Pivot’s are crucial, she added.

“We try to keep a no-kill county. It’s just another dog’s life that we save.”

Should the Pivot initiative succeed, Moore said he wants to see it continue as an ongoing program at the 44-acre juvenile facility, which was built for 420 minors but currently houses only 77 occupants.

“The plan is definitely to keep going with this as long as we can,” Moore said. “It’s a pretty big piece of property and there’s definitely (physical) room for the program to expand.”

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