They've been locked up on a variety of charges, shunned by their families and left to reflect on their sins. But some women of Nevada's Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center are turning their lives around, thanks to staffer Lori Kearse and some very special shelter dogs. They're the women of Pups on Parole.
Founded by Kearse in 2004, the program pairs prisoners with last-chance dogs from the nearby Heaven Can Wait animal sanctuary in Las Vegas. About 30 inmates train the dogs, living with them in their pint-sized cells full time. "You have two inmates per cell, so it's really like three people in a room," Kearse tells PEOPLEPets.com. "They're creative about rearranging whatever it is they can to make space."
Inmates apply to the training program by answering questions about their past pet experiences, how they'd discipline a dog and more. "Then they see the work they have to do," Kearse explains. "They are with these dogs 24 hours a day, documenting their every move in a journal." The inmates follow training guidelines laid out by Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan (he once visited the facility in an episode of his show), and participate in team-building and communication activities — all on top of their daily duties and without the incentive of credit or sentence-reduction. "I want people to come into the program and get internal rewards, not external," says Kearse. "New inmates arrive, and they're looking to 'get' something. I want people to want to be here, helping these dogs."
The only time the dogs do leave the facility is when they go out to adoption drives — and often, many don't come back. "We've had around 600 dogs adopted out of this program," Kearse says (including her two Chihuahuas, Gonzo and Polly). And if an inmate's dog does find a happy family, they receive a new pup to train within 24 hours. "Immediately, they have to move on to the next dog that needs saving," Kearse explains. "It's therapeutic."
Pups on Parole is funded entirely by Heaven Can Wait, at a price tag of about $140,000 per year. "We raise that through donations, T-shirt sales, charity events and more," Kearse says. "It all goes toward vet bills, toys, food, crates, medicine, a van to drive the dogs to adoption events. It's not cheap to operate."
But the payoff is worth the price, for both pups and prisoners. "This program has changed our lives in so many ways," one inmate writes to PEOPLEPets.com. "We've learned the trials and tribulations of being a leader among our peers. In our desire to save the dogs' lives, we must transform ourselves." Adds another, "I came in here not knowing anything about life, and when I leave I will have experience, knowledge, love, respect and responsibility."
And that's what makes Kearse most proud — and silences the few critics of the program. She notes that many have gone on to jobs in pet care or at veterinary offices, and a few have even adopted the very dogs they trained. "Sooner or later, most of these women are getting out of prison," Kearse says. "Instead of going back to what they knew before, you want them to have a newfound passion. And that's what these dogs provide."