Throughout years of history, dogs have established themselves as (and evolved to become) star examples of good character and first-class companionship. Rolled into each of their respective resumes is one particularly standout quality: the ability to love unconditionally. Utterly free of judgment and supremely accepting, a dog can serve as a bridge between human worlds, cultivating unlikely connections and uniting minds.
The Coyote Ridge Dogs program, guided by the Benton-Franklin Humane Society in WA, is taking a unique approach to pet rehabilitation. With the guidance of shelter staff, a certified dog trainer and behaviorist, and mentors, inmates of the Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Connell, WA, are learning to become expert rescue dog handlers. And in turn, homeless dogs are acquiring valuable skills that enhance their adoptability and decrease their risk of return.
The initiative started small a few years ago, with inmates facilitating the training and rehabilitation of 4 lucky dogs. Today, the program welcomes about 20-25 dogs through its doors every month, some progressing through their training in just a couple of weeks, and some sticking around for extended periods of dedicated attention. They’re welcome for as long as it takes to prepare them for their new life.
UNITING SOULS WITH SIMILAR CHALLENGESEach dog is paired with a handler, and taught basic skills and commands including ‘sit’, ‘stay’, and polite leash walking. But perhaps most importantly, they’re afforded the opportunity to just be a dog.
Shelters are busy places, with staff working hard to give every animal the degree of attention it needs and deserves. The Coyote Ridge Dogs program satisfies an adoptable pets’ need for one-on-one time; something that can encourage a shy dog from its shell, give an energetic dog a job, and show an anxious dog that humans can be kind. With basic necessities taken care of and an invested human to guide their growth, personalities are free to blossom.
And the handlers? They experience similar growth and empowerment. Each inmate studies diligently to earn their place in the program, and then spends the majority of their time improving at and perfecting their new craft. Being entrusted with a new responsibility — specifically the welfare and growth of another living being — equips the inmates with fresh hope and motivation.
PROMOTING A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL BONDHeARTs Speak member Judy Devine-Geuther is in her ninth year of volunteering her photography services to the Benton-Franklin Humane Society. For the past 2 years she has also accompanied the program’s leadership team to photograph the Ridge Dogs training sessions twice monthly.
Judy captures day-to-day interactions between the handlers and their charges, and portraits that can be used to promote the eventual adoption of the dogs.
Ultimately, though, Judy is highlighting something even bigger: an inspiring connection between two parties committed to improving one another’s well-being, now and for the future.
REACHING FAR BEYOND THE BARS
Earlier this year, Benton-Franklin Humane Society accepted 4 dogs rescued from a Korean dog meat farm into their care. Each exhibited the behavioral challenges you’d expect of a dog who’d been raised as food, as opposed to a companion, and two weeks of hand-feeding and careful care was necessary to help the dogs settle into the shelter.
Following that transitional period, the handlers of Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility eagerly rose to the challenge of acclimating the dogs to a whole new world. They worked to arm them with basic skills and training and, thanks to the dedication of their inmate handlers, the dogs are now destined for amazing new lives as best friends and family members.
RYDER’S STORYMuch like their handlers, the Ridge Dogs originate from myriad past lives. Ryder, pictured here with his handler, was discovered on the side of a road and assumed the unlucky victim of a fatal car hit. When his rescuers collected him, they were startled (and delighted) to find that he was not dead at all, but in a severe state of shock that had rendered him unresponsive.
Ryder’s recovery was a lengthy one, but with concentrated TLC from his devoted inmate handlers, the trauma of the past months subsided and gave way to his quietly courageous and increasingly affectionate nature.
These days, you’ll find Ryder faithfully serving as a therapy dog for a woman in a wheelchair.
The Coyote Ridge Dogs initiative is powerful because it makes innovative use of available resources, looks beyond past misjudgments and misfortunes and opens a door to improvement — for both dogs and people simultaneously. By merging the paths of incarcerated humans and dogs, the program is giving new purpose and motivation to each.