Training Dogs for Adoption

Linda Mah and Michael Morrison have found Roxie’s training makes her an excellent walking companion. © 2022 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
In teaching canines, the incarcerated gain new skills too

Hey, dog lovers, this one’s for you.

If you’ve wanted to adopt a dog that has already been trained and at the same time provide opportunities for incarcerated individuals to learn skills and do something meaningful while in prison, then Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan is right up your alley.

A nonprofit dog adoption agency based in Coldwater, RPSM works with inmates of the state’s Lakeland Correctional Facility to train dogs in obedience skills prior to those dogs’ adoptions.

The organization has trained and adopted out nearly 1,300 dogs. It began as many impactful things do — it was organized by a few people who cared about an issue. Several women in the Coldwater area came together to keep dogs in local animal shelters from being euthanized, according to Misty Komerick, former president of RPSM and current volunteer. They formed a dog adoption agency and used signs and social media posts to create awareness of the situation.

RPSM’s efforts caught the attention of Carol Howes, then-warden of Lakeland Correctional Facility, who asked the group if it would be interested in working together. According to Komerick, Howes was passionate about giving inmates productive activities to do while incarcerated and thought that the facility could begin a dog-training program.

“Prior to the training program at the prison, we were really small,” says Komerick of RPSM. “We had a handful of foster homes, trying to get those dogs out of the high-kill animal control shelters and get them adopted. The training was huge, because a lot of the dogs just need a little help to make them more adoptable. If someone can adopt a dog that’s crate-trained and knows your basic obedience commands, that’s huge. So it really helped.”

Partnering with a prison

RPSM typically trains younger dogs that come from the organization’s animal shelter partners. Most of the time someone has already asked to adopt a dog before it goes through the training process with the prisoners. Each dog spends about 10 weeks in the Lakeland Correctional Facility, where two inmates are assigned as its trainers. The dogs are with their trainers 24/7 in the facility, and the inmates write progress reports about the animals, providing updates to the adopters on how their dog is doing. There are typically 14 dogs going through training at one time.

To become trainers for the program, inmates have to meet several criteria. “They have to be incident-free for at least 18 months, so they can’t be getting into any new trouble,” Komerick says. “They have to have their GED or be in the process of getting it, and it cannot be anyone incarcerated for criminal sexual conduct, so they are interviewed pretty carefully.”

Jim Blau, a former inmate and participant in the program, explains that, once selected for the program, the inmates learn how to train dogs by being immersed in the program. Newer trainers are partnered with senior trainers, who pass along their knowledge, Blau says.

“They will kind of show you the ropes, show you what the RPSM system is for training dogs and the methods that they like to use,” Blau says.

Blau had worked training dogs prior to his participation in RPSM but says he values the information he received and the lessons he learned from other RPSM trainers. He trained about a dozen dogs during his time in the program and says each dog was a new and exciting experience for him.

“Every time you get a new dog, the first week or two you and your partner are really excited to see what it is going to be like,” Blau says. “You discover that you have to treat each dog as a separate personality. You have to use different techniques, use a little different voice with each dog to get the most out of each one.”
The trainers in the program are supportive of each other and help each other out, Blau says. If a dog is having problems, the trainers brainstorm together and pull from each other’s knowledge in determining how to address the problems.

A new career after prison

Blau took what he learned with him when he was released from prison and now runs his own dog training academy, Mid-Michigan K9 Academy, in Saginaw. Mid-Michigan K9 Academy specializes in a weeklong board-and-train session in which dogs are trained in several basic obedience skills. The academy also offers two-week board-and-training programs as well as a 10-day program to address dog aggression. Blau credits RPSM with giving him something positive and productive to do during his incarceration and says he is thankful to be able to continue using the skills he was taught.

“When you’re incarcerated like that, a lot of stuff is taken away,” he says. “Everything’s taken away from you, and you’re not able to do anything productive like a human should. So, to work with the dogs, you’re not only enabled to do that, but you’re doing it for somebody on the outside and you’re doing something that’s going to make somebody smile. It feels so good that even in this bad situation, you know you did a little bit of good. You made somebody happy. It really changed the quality of life for us.”

Once a dog finishes its training through RPSM, it goes through a “graduation” ceremony before being sent to its new home.

“The week before the dogs are adopted, we have a graduation ceremony and each handler can show off what their dog has learned,” Komerick says. “Then we give each trainer a certificate with their dog’s picture, thanking them for their care and training.”

After the dogs are settled into their new homes, the trainers sometimes get updates from the families about the animals.

‘A really great thing’

Linda Mah, of Kalamazoo, adopted her dog, Roxie, through RSPM after finding out about the organization on social media. Mah and her family were already looking for a dog and, after hearing about the program, decided this was the best choice for her family.

“I wanted a dog who would come trained,” Mah says. “Also, I just liked the idea of the program — the fact that not only are the dogs trained, but it provides the prisoners with this opportunity to do something positive. It seemed like a really great thing.”
Mah, who also has a cat, had originally applied for a different RPSM dog she was interested in but was informed by the organization that the dog would not be good around cats. RPSM suggested Roxie instead.

“The vetting process was pretty extensive,” Mah says. “We filled out an application, described our house and what we were like, had to take a video of the house and the backyard and commit to getting a fence of some sort. I thought they were very good about communicating what they were looking for, what their expectations were. Then we got to meet her (Roxie) beforehand. I think they really try to match the dog with the right person.”

Roxie came to Mah in December 2020, and Mah says she was pleasantly surprised at all the dog had been taught — Roxie could walk on a leash without pulling, was fully potty trained and could obey basic house commands like sit, stay and shake.

“We had a great experience,” Mah says. “Roxie is a great dog. She’s smart. They did a great job training her. They took good care of her. The volunteers did a great job of reassuring me and making sure it was a good match. I’d definitely do it again.”

Blau says he’d love for more people to understand that programs like this change lives. “They change the dogs’ lives but also change people’s lives, both outside and inside,” he says. “It has a way of making a lot of people happy, whether it’s the people just adopting the dog or it’s the people training, getting to know they did something to help somebody. That’s a real blessing.”

Maggie Drew

Maggie interviewed the owners of two very different but equally interesting Kalamazoo businesses for this issue. She met with Tim and Tracy Lynn Kowalski, owners of Bio-Kleen, to talk about this company whose products have gained a national reputation for being among the best and most environmentally safe cleaners on the market. “What I loved about Tim’s story of success was he just listened to what the people around him wanted or needed and he made it,” says Maggie. “It was also really great to see that someone at his level of success really cares about giving back to people.” Maggie also interviewed Adam Weiner about his LEGO store, Bricks and Minifigs, which opens in Kalamazoo later this month and will sell new as well as used LEGO products. “Adam’s personal LEGO collection is very impressive,” she says. “I was intrigued by the community of people who love LEGO and the intricate details in all the sets.” Maggie, who graduated from Western Michigan University in April, worked at Encore as an intern during her senior year.

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