With the holidays just around the corner, non-profits like the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina are ramping up efforts to make sure that no one goes hungry this season. However, another local organization is making sure that our four-legged friends don’t go without food either. The Pet Food Pantry of Eastern North Carolina is like a food bank for pets and is based in Greenville. The Pet Food Pantry is an all-volunteer 501 (C)(3) nonprofit organization that provides free pet food through donations to families facing financial hardship in Pitt County and surrounding areas.

Brenda Malanga, New Leash On Life CCI

We travel to Craven Correctional Institution and speak with inmates who are training dogs from local animal shelters, part of the statewide New Leash On Life program.

Dogs have long been called man’s best friend. Today, we highlight the statewide prison program “New Leash on Life” aimed at training dogs for adoption and giving minimum and medium custody state prisoners a chance to turn their life around.  In June, I visited Craven Correctional Institution in Vanceboro where the program has been going strong for a decade. 

Walking through a maze of hallways and locked doors, Program Director for the New Leash on Life program at Craven Correctional Institution Brenda Malanga leads me to a building located in the interior of the prison.  A guard unlocks a door leading to an outside courtyard.  Here, four inmates are standing with their leashed dogs practicing basic commands like sit, stay and lay down.  Our presence seems to break the dog’s concentration.

 “for eight weeks, that’s pretty much what we do. It’s just all obedience training, it’s just all repetition. One thing we do not do is we do not treat train here.  It’s done by repetition and praise and affection, that’s pretty much it.”

Inmates who apply to participate in the New Leash on Life program teach their dog basic obedience, with an emphasis on house training, and socialization.  Inmate Dwayne Futrell has been working with Luna for seven weeks.

“she’s a two year old border collie corgi cross, she’s very lovable energetic.   We’ve done some certain stuff with her, just hiding stuff and she’s really good at that. She loves playing ball.”

He says training takes time, patience and persistence.

“our sit-stays and down-stays consist of, we started at like 30 seconds and we moved them up to 15 minutes of time now.  So they’re sitting in 15 minute increments for a down-stay and a sit-stay.  We do equal play like if we work for 40 minutes, we give them 40 minutes worth of play. It’s an equal thing.  They need both the same amount of exercise as they do training.”

Local animal shelters are key in identify dogs to participate in the program.  So far, more than 215 have been trained at Craven Correctional.  Furtrell says it’s hard work caring for a dog but the companionship is more than worth the challenge. 

“it’s not only a job where you’re taking care of yourself, you have to take care of them and their wellbeing. Therefore, being with them helps you be just an all-around better person.  I couldn’t see doing it without the dogs. ”

Inmates in the program start the day at 7 o’clock and lead the dogs out of their crates.  They do some indoor house training and then go outside to work with Drake Parker, a trainer from Top Dog Academy.  He volunteers to teach the inmates how to train their dogs.

 “Dogs can be a bridge back to everybody else, a bridge back to society is kind of how we look at it.  In fact, our motto is ‘better men one dog at a time.’  You know, sometimes you got to do something not because you’re getting paid for it, not because you’re getting something out of it, but just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Program inmates spend the rest of the day with their dog by their side.  Around 7 p.m. the dogs are crated until the next morning.  Superintendent 4 at Craven Correctional Institution Larry Dail says the 12 hour training day is beneficial for inmates.

 “they learn responsibility, then that branches off into the inmates being able to take community college classes  in veterinarian assistant tech programs, or being certified dog trainers, so it’s just a win-win situation for inmates, staff and the general public. 

Craven Community College offers a 120 credit hour vet tech course at the prison where inmates can learn the skills necessary to get a job at a veterinarian’s office or an animal shelter when they are released back into society.  The North Carolina Department of Labor also offers inmates an apprentice certification which can help them land a job.  Malanga says most inmates decide to stick with the program because they have to complete 4,000 hours of on the job training and a total of 288 hours of related instruction to get the certification.

 “when the guys become primary trainers, they usually, unless they get shipped out, they make minimum custody or something like that, they’ll stay primary trainers for two or three years.”

Inmate Ruben Vargas has been involved with the New Leash on Life program for two years.   He’s training Katy, a mix mutt.

 “Man, she’s a very lovable dog. She’s a little stubborn, you know what I mean? But I’ve had worse than her.  She plays with the other dogs, she loves people.”

Vargas completed his vet tech class and is currently working on his GED.  He says training dogs has taught him responsibility and determination.

 “The dogs, that’s the easy part, you know. Dealing with people is one of the challenging things you know what I’m saying? It’s something I love doing man, and I have plans.  It’s really what I want to do when I get out.  I might give it a shot man.”

The New Leash on Life program is about second chances; the dogs get a new home and the inmates have an opportunity to turn their lives around.  Luna’s human, inmate Dwayne Futrell has been at the prison for three months. And so far, he’s already completed his vet tech class and is working to get his apprentice certification from the State Department of Labor.  He also wants to pursue a career working with dogs when he gets out of prison.

 “it just gives me something to show the community that I can better myself and I can give back to the community instead of messing up like I’ve done in my life. I can actually turn around and show what good I can do instead of what bad I can do.”

More than 215 dogs, trained at Craven Correctional, have been adopted since the New Leash on Life started in 2004. Program Director Brenda Malanga says they’ve had great success finding homes for the dogs.

 “We’ve only had one dog so far that hasn’t been adopted and we’re in the process of back and forth with her of getting her adopted. The rest of the dogs, normally by the time graduation comes around, in all other cases they’ve all been adopted.  So we’ve been really lucky.”

Since my visit last month, inmate Rueben Vargas has received his Apprenticeship Certificate from the NC State Labor Department in Dog Training.  Additionally, two more trainers have completed requirements to receive their certifications.  The eight week course that ended July 10th saw four dogs - Katie, Stella, Bud and Luna - complete the New Leash on Life training.  Malanga says so far, three of the four dogs have found new homes, except for two year old Luna.  New Leash On Life a program held across the state.  It was announced this week that Eastern Correctional Institution in Greene County is closing as a men's prison and will be converted to a minimum security women's prison. There are four dogs there that have been in training for about 3 weeks. All of them are healthy, heart worm negative, spayed or neutered and current on vaccinations.  The dogs need to be adopted by the end of August.  See below for information on adopting A New Leash On Life dog.

Puppy Mills in ENC

Feb 11, 2013
Photo by Frank Loftus / The Humane Society of the United States

A bill will likely be introduced in the next couple weeks that will impose regulations on commercial dog breeders that sell directly to the public. The bill is part of a growing effort to put a stop to puppy mills in North Carolina. Groups, such as the American Kennel Club, and the North Carolina Federation of Dog Owners believe the legislation may affect responsible dog owners in a negative way.