Written by: Karen Diehm, Freedom Tails Editor/Photographer
Since human’s interactions with our canine friends have shown to reduce stress and depression, Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC), located in Aberdeen, Washington, implemented the Freedom Tails program in 2009. Freedom Tails, working in conjunction with North Beach PAWS brings in shelter dogs that might otherwise be euthanized and gives them a second chance at life. SCCC was the first men’s facility in the State of Washington to start a dog program, and due to its positive outcomes has led other men’s facilities in the state to do the same thing.
Freedom Tails started in one living unit with 8 dogs, 16 offender-handlers, and a walker. It proved to be such a great success that it has grown to two units, 16 dogs, 32 offender-handlers, and 3-4 walkers. The dogs come to the facility and live with the offender-handlers in their cells for 10 weeks. Each dog is set up with a Primary and Secondary handler – that way, if the Primary handler has work or programming scheduled, the Secondary handler can take care of their furry cellmate. And, if both are busy, the walker for the unit will take care of the dog. The walkers get the best deal, as they get to interact with each dog in the unit!
The dogs first learn basic obedience, potty training (especially the puppies), and socialization. They are then taught both verbal commands and silent hand-signal commands. Some go even further, learning tricks and specialized commands. The dogs are then made available for adoption to the general public. Freedom Tails has also brought in special-needs dogs on occasion. These dogs have a home, but their people are in need –a woman with MS who needed her dog to open doors, retrieve her medicine bag, or help her up if she fell; a woman bound to a wheel chair needing assistance; and a person with a nine-month-old German Shepherd (at that time 104lbs!) who would, after Freedom Tails training, go on to earn his International Therapy dog certification.
Offenders in the program are screened and interviewed before being allowed to participate, and the waiting list is long. They can have no history of domestic violence, child abuse, or animal abuse and have to be infraction-free. (Basically, that means they have not gotten into trouble while in prison). The handlers are not paid to be in the program, as participation is entirely on a volunteer basis, nor does Freedom Tails receive any funding from the Department of Corrections. All monies come from adoption fees, donations, and sales of leather goods made by the offenders, which are available to the public.
The graduation ceremony now routinely has tissue boxes available for the adopters and visitors attending, as it can be very moving. The handlers tell stories of how their dogs have grown and blossomed, many in tears themselves, while the audience may be laughing and crying at the same time. All the dogs are about to start yet another journey in their life—most have just gotten used to another “new” home—and now will make another move. Little do they know it will be the best of a new beginning to a forever loving home and life!
With the upcoming graduation December 5th – if all 16 graduates are adopted – Freedom Tails will have found new, forever homes for over 225 dogs! The Freedom Tails program is a trifecta. The trainers discover the true meaning of responsibility and caring—some, for the first time in their lives; a loving family gains a new forever family member; and most important, a wonderful dog is saved from being euthanized. Win, Win, Win!