Since 2005, the Pen Pals of San Quentin program has been helping nonviolent, specially-selected inmates learn how to help dogs overcome medical and behavioral issues so they can be ready to find their forever home. These pups need quality time with a person — and time is something the inmates have in abundance. The prisoners have also proven to have big hearts and are definitely up to the task.

I have been incredibly lucky to become a member of the amazing Pen Pal Program team. Not only do I get to work with wonderful volunteers, but I learn from them each day. Their dedication to the Pen Pals program, combined with years of vast experience, display of camaraderie and teamwork, and sincere fascination in animal behavior makes working with them a pleasure. I have seen each member of this group, with a sparkle in their eye, talk to inmate-handlers about dog behavior. They love each dog we work with and cheer the inmates on when they’re released to move on with their lives. They have great passion not only for the dogs to succeed, but the men, too. Not everyone feels comfortable entering a prison to mingle with inmates, but this team sees them as humans, treats them as such, and does so with grace, respect, compassion and encouragement.

Let me introduce you to the team of Pen Pal volunteers:

Ron Basque, Dog Training Assistant: Known as the playful one, the inmate-handlers and Ron love to tease each other. Ron started volunteering at Marin Humane in 2006 as a Dog Training Assistant (DTA) and with the Pet Care Assistance program. He joined the Pen Pals team in 2009. Ron particularly likes bringing dogs and inmates together through this program as both have gone through some tough times. He says, “The change I see in them is very heartwarming. We saw an example last week when we brought the dog Pixie back to San Quentin. How she reacted when spotting “Marvin” and then running to greet “Farrand” was a priceless moment. There have been many other special moments over the years, including Pedro (one of the amazing handlers) who changed tremendously when he got involved in this program.”

Anni Black, Instructor: Finding what works: Anni looks outside the box to individualize training, as each dog and handler is different and have different challenges.

Anni joined the Pen Pals program at its inception in 2006. She explained, “We initially thought this would be a great place for the rowdy adolescent dogs to get some training and supervision, but it quickly evolved into a very valuable place for the shy, injured, and ill dogs to spend some time and gain confidence, better health, and social skills. The program has benefited many dogs, and I think, the lives of the inmates who work day and night with their charges. It has been an ongoing learning process for me to help the inmates through both behavioral and training challenges of such a wide range of dogs.”

Barbara Bochner, Dog Training Assistant: Different perspective: Barbara incorporates her training experience from Canine Companions for Independence to offer a different angle to learning and understanding dog behavior.

Barbara joined the Pen Pals program as a DTA in the summer of 2010. She comments, “My doggie background is that I’ve had a dog most of my adult life and have enjoyed training them and doing competitive obedience and agility, as well as having them as great hiking buddies. Since 2010, I have also become involved with raising puppies with my husband for a service dog program (Canine Companions for Independence). I love what the Pen Pals program can do for both the dogs and the inmates who take care of them. Over and over, I’ve seen shy or distracted dogs learn that people can be warm and caring and that they’re safe with them. The dogs learn to be more social with people and at ease in their surroundings, and therefore more adoptable. As for the men in the program, we’ve seen the benefits of real connections being made between the men and their dogs, and the positive results of being empathetic and learning to be a good leader for the dogs. I think the Pen Pals program is an inspiring win-win program for the dogs, the men at San Quentin, and for all of us who get to be a part of it.”

Kathleen Dillon, Instructor: We all look forward to Kathleen’s creative visit write-ups. This photo shows her “sparkle” when she is around any animal! Kathleen enjoys being part of a team that collaborates and coordinates, where everyone learns from one another and shares their devotion to making this program work for the dogs and for the men. She finds satisfaction that comes from observing the changes in the men over time, how they discover wonderful parts of themselves that they didn’t know they had, and sharing the joy and hope of the men as they are finally released from San Quentin. Most of all, she finds joy in seeing troubled and/or wounded pups recover thanks to the devotion and affection of the men and is grateful for the outstanding behavior and training wizards on the SQ team who trained her.

Larry Nilsen Instructor: Always adding his personal touch: Larry makes collars and leashes that can soften the look of a dog that some might view as intimidating in appearance and in turn, highlight their sweet personality. That’s talent! Larry joined the San Quentin Pen Pals team in 2007 as a Dog Training Assistant (DTA) and became a trainer in 2009. He said, “I have lost track of how many inmates and dogs have been part of the Pen Pals program but each and every one has a unique story. One of my dogs is a graduate of the Pen Pals program many years ago. The program has given me the opportunity to help with the rehabilitation and transition of these men back into life on the outside of prison. For many of these inmates, it’s the first time in many years they have been able to hold and pet a dog, let alone be responsible for the care of a dog. They can show love, compassion, and tenderness in an environment that does not allow such feeling.

The dogs they care for range from needing medical recovery, behavioral training or just a time away from the stressful life at the shelter for a while. The handler the dog is assigned to is required to keep a daily journal about the dog and provide information that may be valuable to a potential adopter. The men take great pride in the work they do with these dogs and are always asking if the dog was adopted and how he or she is doing. The program helps these men connect to society outside of prison in a positive way. Having witnessed some emotional parting when a dog is paroled back to the shelter, I’m sure the Pen Pals program is making an impact on these men’s lives in prison and when they return to life on the outside of it.”

Karen Schuerholz, Instructor: Training fun: Sometimes we just need to switch things up from the same ol’ same ol’ and Karen adds a fun touch by teaching tricks when the timing is right. Karen said, “Larry Carson (founder of the Pen Pals program) asked if I’d teach dog training at San Quentin about six years ago. At first I was nervous, having never visited a prison. Teaching at San Quentin has been one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences I‘ve had in my 20 plus years at Marin Humane. It’s so awesome seeing the change in both humans and canines over time. The guys do a really great job of comforting, loving, training, and medicating their dogs. They do remarkable work under stressful conditions and I look forward to each visit. We pass the positive reinforcement-learning baton to a set of folks we would never have reached. Of all the classes I teach this is the most special. I will always remember these times.”

Deborah Wagman, Dog Training Assistant: Deb is known as “the encourager”: When the guys think they can’t do something, she shows them that they can! Deb has been in the program for almost five years helping to teach the inmates how to train dogs in a positive loving way. “I love this program because I am participating in something where everyone benefits; the dogs are transformed, and in some cases saved from being euthanized. The men are doing something which, in some of their words, is life changing. And I walk away from every session with renewed faith in humans, and a reaffirmation of the importance of having animals in our lives.”

Mary Hallor, Instructor: Mary joined the program in 2006. Unfortunately, she’s been on an extensive leave with a bum knee but we look forward to her return once she’s mended.

Pen Pals truly is a win-win for dog and man. This program is funded through generous donations and grants. To date, more than 300 dogs have graduated from the program and more than 55 inmates have participated.

By Cathy Marcoccio, Pen Pals Volunteer Coordinator