Teaching inmates to train rescue dogs: Pixie’s Pen Pals

Teaching inmates to train rescue dogs: Pixie’s Pen Pals

I have had the unique advantage of working with close to 40 different dogs. Each one of them is unique and each one with its own problems, strengths, characteristics, etc. I remember each and every one of them and they all hold a special place in my heart. It is because of what the dogs have taught me that today I am a better person. That today I can truly live, have hopes, dreams and goals, and that today I can carry it all through.


– Scott Webb

Former inmate handler, now released

Prison dog training programs have recently received national media attention and have even been highlighted in documentary films. The Richmond area is fortunate to have had one such program operating in our own backyard for the past 15 years. Managed by FETCH a Cure, the Pixie’s Pen Pals program connects local-area rescue dogs with inmates at Virginia correctional centers to train and socialize dogs in need of adoption, while also providing rehabilitation and life skill development opportunities for inmates.

With guidance and instruction from professional dog trainers, inmates use positive reinforcement training to ensure that those who adopt a dog from the program have a well-trained and socialized pup joining their family. As the FETCH a Cure website states, Pixie’s Pen Pals “enriches the lives of dogs, inmates, and adopters.” With an estimated 1,100 dogs saved since the program’s original inception in 2001, Pixie’s Pen Pals has facilitated a lot of win-win-wins throughout these past 15 years.

To get a better sense of how the program works, how it is designed, and the benefits for the dogs, adopters, and inmates, I spoke with Sarah Hornberger, the Pixie’s Pen Pals Program Coordinator.

Selecting the right rescue dog for the program

Flossie loves her humans, is CGC prepped, and available for adoption. Photo by IYQ Photography.

Flossie loves her humans, is CGC prepped, and available for adoption. Photo by IYQ Photography.

Flossie, the smart and social young gal pictured above, has been with the program for more than a year and a half and is currently waiting for her forever home. Once she is fortunate enough to find the right family for her, her spot in the program ― one of 15 total ― will open up and the search for a new rescue dog begins. Ms. Hornberger contacts several local shelters, including Southside SPCA, Goochland County Animal Control, and Richmond Animal Care and Control, to solicit suggestions for the newest canine participant. Professional trainers meet the suggested dogs at the shelters and run them through basic tests to make sure that they get along with other dogs and would do well in the heavily-structured environment of a prison facility.

FETCH a Cure uses the program to help potentially overlooked dogs have a better chance of being adopted. “We want to choose a dog who needs the training,” says Hornberger. “Many dogs are hyper or scared in the shelter because of a lack of exercise or socialization, and they can get overlooked by would-be adopters.” Participation in Pixie’s Pen Pals can channel an active dog’s energy into productive training, as well as provide socialization for frightened dogs. “If it comes down to having multiple dogs who meet these criteria, we also like to give dogs who have been in the shelter for a long time a chance at becoming more ‘adoptable.'”

Teaching inmates to become dog trainers

Once Butterbean knows you, she bonds deeply and is incredibly sweet and loyal. See her profile.

Once Butterbean knows you, she bonds deeply and is incredibly sweet and loyal. See her profile.

On the other side of the leash, inmates apply for the position and go through a selection process with the program’s prison liaison, who is typically in a counseling role and employed by the correctional facility. There are four participating correctional centers: Buckingham Correctional Center, Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, Virginia Correctional Center for Women, and Lunenberg Correctional Center.

Generally, eligible participants cannot have been convicted of sex, domestic violence, or animal abuse offenses. Beyond those restrictions, the liaison looks for potential participants that are the right fit for the program’s goals. “The most important things we look for are the ability to work as part of a team and a desire for education,” says Hornberger. “Our handlers each have a teammate, whom they often room with, and they must work together to train their assigned dogs.”

In fact, the program has a “it takes a village” mentality, as most teams work with other teams to ensure all dogs in the program are well-trained and cared for. “It’s amazing to see the more experienced teams work with newer handlers on behavior issues that may arise,” says Hornberger. “This is where the education aspect comes into play. While we have our basic training materials, the handlers are constantly reading and learning about dog behavior and care. They have weekly reading and writing assignments and are always asking for additional educational materials to learn more about certain topics.” Each correctional facility houses study materials in their ever-expanding libraries. “I never stop getting requests for new books.”

Training and living with the dogs

Quen is a great kisser and is looking for a forever home! Photo by Josh Lewis.

Quen is a great kisser and is looking for a forever home! Photo by Josh Lewis.

The dogs live full-time at the correctional facilities in the same cell as their handlers. Each dog has a crate that they stay in while they are unsupervised, adding “crate-trained” to the list of benefits for adopting families. “This situation most closely emulates what it’s like to live in a home, which is important for any shelter dog to learn,” says Hornberger. “All of the handlers see each other on a daily basis to help one another with any issues they are having, and also so the dogs can play with each other and learn to take cues from other people.”

Professional dog trainers visit the correctional facilities once a week to hold trainer meetings. All of the handlers meet as a large group so that the trainers can cover new training topics and assignments, and deal with any concerns the group may have. During the group sessions, some handlers are tasked with presentations on dog behavior or care, furthering the educational and team-building goals of the program. “These are great sessions for handlers to offer advice to one another,” says Hornberger. “The group sessions have even been used to discuss friction between teammates and how it can be resolved, focusing on the human side of dog training.”

After the group session, trainers meet with each team individually to discuss their dog’s progress and any specific concerns. While the weekly training lessons are about two hours long, the trainers also correspond with the prison liaisons throughout the week to discuss any issues, maintaining a consistent line of communication.

The benefits for the dogs and their adopters

brooklyn-and-penny-pixies-pen-palsThe Pixie’s Pen Pals program has clear benefits for the dogs. Due to their positive interactions with their human handlers and other dogs at the facilities, the participating dogs leave the program well socialized and ready for life in a forever home. FETCH a Cure works with potential adopters to match the right dog for them, which not only makes both the dogs and humans happy, but also reduces the number of dogs returning to the shelter system. Adopters of Pen Pals graduates will often send in updates about their new family members.

Sarah, Penny’s adopter, says, “Penny is wonderful. She’s loving, mellow (unless she finds another dog to play with, then it’s like a switch flipped and she has tons of playful energy), well mannered, and just all around a wonderful dog. We couldn’t have gotten a better dog, and she’s really absolutely perfect for us!”

Beth, Brooklyn’s adopter, has had a similar experience with her pup. “Brooklyn is perfect for me and my home and it was pretty much ‘love at first sight.’ She has found a forever home with people who love her and she certainly gives just as much love in return.”

With the guidance from the professional trainers, the inmate handlers train the dogs based on the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, a 10-step certification that rewards a dog’s good manners and obedience at home and in the community. “On average, it takes about six weeks for the handlers to train the dogs to become CGC prepared,” says Hornberger. “The dogs then go through a mock CGC test.” Dogs residing in a shelter or rescue program cannot be officially CGC tested until they are adopted. While the inmate handlers cannot take the test with the dogs, they do provide adopters with all the information they need if they are interested in pursuing the certification with their new canine companion.

Who rescues whom? How inmates benefit from the program

Ernest is CGC prepped and loves the ladies! Check out his profile.

Ernest is CGC prepped and loves the ladies! Check out his profile.

For the participating inmates, the program promotes rehabilitation and helps increase positive interaction between correctional center staff and the rest of the prison population. “The program helps our inmate handlers do well in general,”  says Hornberger. “Anything negative that they do could jeopardize their future in the program, and most handlers would not want to be separated from the dog they are training.” Hornberger says that they have rarely had to remove someone from the program.”The human-animal bond that is formed could go a long way to explain this.”

Participation in the program doesn’t just incentivize and encourage good behavior among the inmate handlers. According to FETCH a Cure’s website, “By working cooperatively to help the animals, the inmates learn responsibility, patience, and emotional confidence among many other character building qualities that improve and enhance external relationships.”

Reading the perspectives of the handlers themselves truly shows the immensely positive impact Pixie’s Pen Pals has had on their lives. Scott Webb, a former Pixie’s Pen Pals handler who participated in the program for eight and a half years and has since been released, had this to say about his experience:

When I first got this job, I had no experience and no clue of what it truly entailed…Quickly I learned that I was now responsible for another living being. No longer did I have to worry about just myself and simply surviving day to day in prison. It was now my responsibility to not just feed or take out a dog, but I also had to care for it, totally, train it and help modify any behavioral issues it may have…At times I was unsure if I could really do it. I knew nothing about dog training. As a child, if a dog pooped in the house, we would rub its nose in it, paddle it with a rolled up newspaper, and hopefully it never did it again. I grew up this same way. If I did something wrong, I would get beat and life went on. I never knew just how wrong those philosophies are until I got into this program.


It is through this program, through positive reinforcement training, that, not only did I learn a valuable skill to take with me to one day hopefully give more back to society, but valuable life skills as well. I learned how to love, how to trust, how to be responsible, how to communicate effectively, how to be a team player, how to see things through…Words can’t describe how grateful I truly am and how much I owe to this program and the dogs I’ve worked with.

Click here to learn more about FETCH a Cure’s Pixie’s Pen Pals program. Be sure to also check out the dogs that are available for adoption on their website. Due to the hard work and affection from the inmate handlers and professional dog trainers, you will not only find a dog that is socialized and lovable, but you will also open up a spot for another rescue dog to learn, grow, and go on to find a forever home.

I would like to extend a big thank you to Sarah Hornberger of FETCH a Cure Pixie’s Pen Pals for taking the time to answer my questions about the program! Thanks to Josh Lewis Photography for the featured image at the top.

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