A dog training at New Leash on Life USA is like any other dog training, according to Kyrie Palan, director of community outreach. Baby talk and training clickers resonate as handlers interact with their dogs and trainers talk through instructions.
But at the end of training, the handlers and trainers will return to their prison bunks. Many of these trainers are learning how to handle dogs as part of their personal development training through New Leash on Life, a recidivism reduction program in Philadelphia serving both individuals in the justice system and at-risk dogs.
“No other programs in prison teaches you responsibility, accountability, and time management,” Meghan*, a program graduate, said. “Because you’re not only responsible for yourself, you have someone else now wholeheartedly relying on you to wake up, to take them out, to train them, to feed them, and to bathe them.”
New Leash on Life takes dogs from shelters and pairs them with individuals involved in the justice system — both those in prison who will be getting out soon and the recently released. After the dogs complete their training, they are then eligible for adoption, and often have a family waiting to take them in.
New Leash on Life will also soon begin working with people diverted from prison.
“It’s not just to keep them out of prison, but give them what they need to live a good life,” Marian Marchese, founder and CEO of New Leash on Life USA, said.
Marchese started the program after her time volunteering at ACCT.
“I saw a need for helping these dogs that were not going to have a chance and I heard about these prison dog programs throughout the country and there was not one in Philadelphia,” Marchese said.
Marchese said in her research, she found that most of the programs around the country similar to what she had in mind either trained dogs bred to be service dogs or dogs from rescues. However, they often did not focus on the inmates’ development.
“So, I decided that our program would address humans as well as the dogs,” Marchese said.
Marchese’s program offers a multistage approach that includes an in-prison program focused on training and caring for the dogs, as well as job skills, life plans, and other support including mental health, first aid, and financial literacy for the trainers.
Upon release, individuals in the program enter a post-release program that includes group meetings, individual case management, a paid internship, transportation help, assistance with job applications, and access to a career closet and food pantry.
“I became a whole different person,” Meghan said. “I wasn’t who I was when I started. They make you dig deep in that program and figure out the problems and what can change and where it’ll change and how it will change.”
The one year recidivism rate for New Leash is 9.27% as compared to the 33% general recidivism rate for the prison population of Philadelphia. For volunteers and graduates, what makes New Leash on Life so successful is the animal component.
“The animals help people find their empathy again and care and be open and understand that they can be successful by helping these dogs,” Marchese said. “And that is a huge motivator for them.”
Volunteers and graduates agree there is a connection between the dogs who were locked up in kennels and the inmates.
“These animals are in the same situation of being imprisoned in the city shelter,” Anne Koszalka, a volunteer who helps with the animal selection, said.
Meghan was in prison for a year when she found out about the program and joined. She then transitioned to a new living situation in the jail and started living with her dog, Latte.
“The adjustment was good for me because I wasn’t locked down 24/7,” she said. “And I don’t think that the adjustment was much different for the dog, because they went from the same — in a kennel behind bars. Then, they’re free and they’re outside and they get to play and be with humans.”
Marchese said program participants demonstrate a noticeable growth in confidence, interpersonal skills, teamwork, anger management, and even patience due to the positive reinforcement the program’s dog training model utilizes.
The growth is also noticeable for the dogs who go through the program successfully. Program participants train the dogs to be able to pass a canine good citizen test.
Meghan says Latte went from chewing on things, using the bathroom inside, and consistently crying to being able to follow commands, pass her test, and adapt to new environments.
“I think there are a lot of parallels that we see externally, but I think that especially the participants see themselves day to day,” Palan said.
In fact, the bond between program participants and their dogs is so strong that Marchese said they have had to bring in a grief counselor for the trainers before the dogs graduate and join the families who adopted them.
New Leash hosts a graduation ceremony at the end of the in prison program to celebrate both the dogs’ training and the participants’ personal growth.
“They get to meet and talk to the people that are adopting their dog that they just spent the past three months working with and living with,” Palan said. “I think it comes full circle.”
The program is always looking for volunteers to help with in prison and out of prison programs. Additionally, those interested in adopting a dog from the program can apply at the New Leash on Life website.
“When we do this, we save the lives of dogs that would have been killed who are now living in great homes and helping people,” Marchese said.
– New Leash on Life graduates asked to be identified by first name only due to their record with the justice system.
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