“All dogs go to heaven,” as the saying goes. But in Venus, lucky pups go to prison.
The fortunate few are sprung from kill shelters by Hewitt-based Happy Endings Dog Rescue.
The Sanders Estes Unit in Venus is home to 1,040 prisoners of varying degrees of lawlessness, and at times, as many as 20 dogs, including the unit’s mascot, a three-legged mutt named King Tut.
And like prisoners — many of whom say they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time — the dogs deserve a second chance, said Lt. Christine Chaplin who oversees the Paws of Hope dog training program at Sanders Estes.
Started in 2009 as a way to rehabilitate prisoners and make “unwanted” dogs — such as pit bulls, pit bull-mixes and Rottweilers — more adoptable, the program has helped save more than 120 dogs that would have otherwise been euthanized in kill shelters.
“Pit bulls and Rottweilers are two dogs that have a horrible name,” Chaplin said. “They are over-bred and tossed aside ... I like the fact that they bring those because you can show people that they are great family dogs, that it’s not the dogs [that are bad] It’s the people.”
By the time they arrive at Sanders Estes, the dogs have already been through a “doggy boot camp” at Camp Diggy Bones, a boarding facility and shelter in Lavon, which works in conjunction with Happy Endings to ensure the pups are ready for adoption. The adoption fee for any dog is $100. Each is trained with basic commands, spayed or neutered and up to date on vaccinations.
“Between training and all that stuff, they’re a several thousand dollar dog by the time they leave here,” Chaplin said.
Management and Training Corporation contracts the Sanders Estes facility through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Chaplin said the goal of MTC is to help offenders get back into society. Privilege programs like Paws of Hope benefit those serious about rehabilitation.
The dogs live prison cells with select trainers for 12 weeks and are around people 24 hours a day while they learn tricks, basic obedience and socialization. At the end of three months, the dogs and their trainers attend a graduation ceremony, after which, if not immediately adopted, the dogs return to a rescue facility to wait for their forever home.
dogs new tricks
Eighteen new dogs arrived for training on Monday; the majority were bully breeds.
Suddenly, a group of convicted murderers, drug dealers and burglars were transformed into tender-hearted dog whisperers.
“Oh, you’re a good boy, a good boy aren’t you,” said inmate Larry Fugitt Jr. to Stubbs, a muscular red pit bull with golden eyes that Camp Diggy Bones’ owner Gene Mason said was former bait dog.
Bait dogs are often used by dog fighters to arouse the fighting instinct in another dog, Mason said.
“Whenever I’m missing my kids or mom, I just go pet a dog and it takes me away,” Fugitt said. “When I get out of here, I’d like to go volunteer with one of these groups.”
Another inmate, Brandon Saldivar, said he enjoys having the dogs around because they help prisoners cope with being locked up.
“It’s kind of hard to get excited in here,” he said. “I didn’t have this privilege for five years before I came here [to Sanders Estes].”
Inmate Anthony Ramirez said he appreciated having the opportunity to work with dogs as a constructive means to overcome his past.
He received his eighth dog to train on Monday. It was Tut. And like many of the prisoners, Tut has lived a hard life.
Years ago, Tut was hit by a car and thrown over a fence to die, Chaplin said. Now the American Bulldog/Great Dane mix lives a tri-pawed life of happiness among the prisoners and officers. Not that he knows he lives in a prison. He’s been known to wander about as he pleases, unlike the prisoners who must ask permission to do nearly anything.
However, not all dogs get to stay at Sanders Estes. Some, like a pit bull-mix named Bessie, prove quickly that they are simply too dog-aggressive to live around other dogs.
She arrived Monday with a belligerent attitude toward fellow pups, which earned her an immediate return trip to Camp Diggy Bones.
“These dogs are from shelters, rescued from fighting busts and puppy mills,” Mason said, adding that Bessie is a rescued fighting dog, once forced to attack others at the hands of her owner.
But dogs like Bessie are not given up on, Mason said. Instead, they receive personal, focused, in-depth training to reverse what they’ve learned and are often adopted out to families where they can peacefully live out the rest of their lives, a la dozens of Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels dogs.
Happy tails to you
Thea Yambor, with Camp Diggy Bones, begins each 12-week session with a meet-and-greet by bringing each dog forward and saying a few things about its temperament.
“What we do is bring them dogs that we feel would benefit from being here,” she said. “At first, coming to a prison concerned me because the guys are kind of rough-looking. But I feel like they have a kinship with the dogs because of their past.”
Yambor makes trips to the prison several times throughout the training process as does Burleson trainer Wendy Palmer, who brings a Jack Russell Terrier to each session. If neither is available, Chaplin or Officer Brittany Campbell can assist with training.
“We’re like vet techs, slash trainers, slash behavior specialists,” Chaplin said with a laugh.
She and Campbell said having the dogs around is their favorite part of work.
“I don’t have room for animals at my house, so these are my dogs just as much,” Campbell said. “I love to watch the change in the dogs, from being scared, crawling around on the floor to being happy when you come in the pod and excited to do tricks.”
Oftentimes, inmates fall so in love with the dogs they find ways to adopt them, as do employees at the facility. Chaplin adopted her pit bull, Tallulah, from the program.
“She is the best dog I’ve ever had,” she said. “She’s kept my house from getting broken into three times. She sleeps with my kids, and she’s commendeered my husband’s side of the bed now. But, you know, she’s a great dog.”
Ex-inmates also call to see about dogs available for adoption. After getting back on their feet, some have opted to adopt from the program, saying they wouldn’t think of looking elsewhere, Chaplin said.
She said many of them say the program helped them learn to be responsible and attentive to things outside of their former lifestyles.
“I hope that this program ultimately helps most of the guys because most graduations, they end up bawling like little kids,” she said with a smile. “They get attached.”
For more information on Happy Endings Dog Rescue, Camp Diggy Bones or adopting a Paws of Hope dog, visit www.getchapullrip.wix.com/pawsofhope.