Dog training program gives pups and prisoners a second chance

Credit: Evanne Armour

GOOCHLAND COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Unwanted and neglected dogs are getting a second chance in an unusual place — Virginia prisons.

The program is a partnership between the Virginia Department of Corrections and volunteers.

Dogs in need of some extra attention live with prisoners at five different facilities. The prisoners train and socialize them to get them ready for adoption.

Valerie Rasnake is a part-time dog handler at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women (VCCW) in Goochland County.

“We’re in prison trying to change some things, and we get a chance to work with dogs and change them and help them get a second change at life, too,” she said. “It’s kind of a parallel, you know?”

Rasnake grew up around dogs. Her parents raised German Shepherds. She never thought she would be training them while incarcerated.

“It’s very therapeutic. It’s comforting. It’s peaceful knowing that, if you’re having a bad day, you can come in and love on a dog and work with them. It changes your life in prison. It does,” she said.

Wendy Sprouse is another handler at the institution.

She agrees the dogs are making an impact.

“Some of the halls, they were pretty tense if arguments broke out or something,” said Sprouse. “It just seems like with the dogs in the hall, it calms people down. It keeps their nerves lower.”

Bob Tillack is the director of BARK, the organization that locates the needy dogs that are brought to the prisons for TLC.

“Those animals probably wouldn’t have made it out of the shelters. They were castoffs,” said Tillack.

He said he has gotten some push back about the program, which is run off donations and volunteers.

“I’ve had some critics say, ‘Well you’re providing these people with pets.’ They are pets, but these people are here to train the animals.

They work hard,” said Tillack. “[The dogs] needed this before they were ready to go into homes.”

The inmates work with volunteer dog trainer Erich Krause. Together, they coach the dogs in becoming house trained, crate trained and fluent in basic obedience commands.

Tillack believes the animals bring out the best in the people.

“It costs nothing for the state to have these dogs here at the facility. The [offenders] have time, and that’s what we need — time spent with the animals,” he said.

VCCW operations manager Lisa Nuss started the BARK effort at the facility in 2016. Today, Sarah Diacont oversees the program.

“A lot of these women that come in will tell you stories of feeling abandoned, not feeling loved or supported,” said Diacont. “The dogs are similar.”

She said the newfound responsibility and companionship changes the way they look at themselves, society and their opportunities.

“It just really brings everything full circle,” she said.

When Diacont got involved in with the program, she told herself she wouldn’t get attached to any of the dogs. That didn’t last long.

She fell in love with a trainee named Abby who was rescued from a Virginia Beach shelter just two days before she was set to be euthanized.

As soon as she completed the program, Abby — now trained — went home with Diacont.

Sprouse said seeing the dogs’ growth, like Abby’s, makes it worthwhile.

“We love them so much and we love to see from day one to the day they get adopted. It makes all the difference in the world,” she said.

But she admits it isn’t just the dogs getting an adjustment.

“I think my attitude has changed. I’ve always been a compassionate person, but they make you even more compassionate,” Sprouse said of the dogs.

The inmates said the love and respect they see from the dogs help them see their own value.

“We really want to change.” said Rasnake. “Yeah, we made a mistake. We are not mistakes.”

To learn more about the program click HERE.

Click HERE to see which dogs are available for adoption.

In addition to VCCW, the program is also in place at Green Rock in Chatham, near Lynchburg; Haynesville near Tappahannock; Lawrenceville, between South Hill and Emporia; and Nottoway in Burkeville, an hour southwest of Richmond.

Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour
Credit: Evanne Armour