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Spotlight: Puppy love behind bars

Submitted Photo Rebecca Porte brought two new "inmates" to be rehabilitated, or rather trained, to the Roswell Correctional Fascility. It took a little bit longer, because the prison was on lockdown due to COVID-19 regulations, but Sgt. Joshua Carrell was ready to take the puppies, Heidi, the brindle and Blue, front, to their new handlers.

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All Hearts 4 Paws Shelter joins forces with Roswell Correctional Center

By Christina Stock

Vision Editor

One of the biggest challenges animal shelters have is finding a home for their rescues — especially if those dogs are shy, scared and neglected — having never received proper training. These problems become even more serious if the shelter is a no-kill shelter, as All Hearts 4 Paws Shelter is in Hagerman, after all, there is only so much space.

Rebecca Porte is an active supporter of the shelter, in an interview she talked about the innovative solution that came to be after many years of working on it.

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“All Hearts 4 Paws Shelters was started approximately three years ago by Vi Babcock,” Porte said. “She worked for the town of Hagerman. When she retired, she decided she would start a no-kill shelter. Now she is as busy as can be.”

For several years, the shelter tried to approach the Roswell Correctional Center (RCC) to see if they could start a program that would work in favor of the dogs needing training, pairing them with qualified inmates.

“I approached the interim warden about four years ago and she was interested,” Porte said. “However, they had a series of wardens go through — that’s an interesting outfit there in the boonies, so it takes a particular fit. We weren’t able to instigate it at that time, but then in 2018, when warden Benavides had been here a while, we revisited it with him and got working on that.”

RCC is in support of the nationwide Hope for PAWS program, which rescues dogs.

Asked why it means so much for Porte — not only to help the dogs, but also by giving a purpose to the inmates who take care of the troubled dogs — she said, “My dad was in jail. He died in the federal system. I am seeing what these men are going through, I understand it is for punishment and they should be punished, but I also see the difficulty of prison. Not only for them, but for their families. They are victims times two. They are victims because they lost their loved one and they are victims because of the stigma having a loved one in jail. That was my involvement. So when Vi opened the shelter, it was a perfect match in Hagerman. The prison is technically in Hagerman even though it’s called Roswell.

“It was a perfect fit, the warden was willing and able, and we worked closely with Capt. Brisco and Lt. Carrell — those are the officers who help us with the program out there. They have been so receptive and it’s been great. There is a program in Las Cruces, and then there is one in Santa Fe I believe, doing similar things. It is interesting to have that here in our area.

“A year ago, we started to work with the prison directly, warden Benavides and us took out two dogs, Sophie and Luna. They were inaugural dogs,” Porte said. “The first dog that we had, Sophie — she had been found in Hagerman and she was damaged across the face. And probably she’d been hit by somebody/something and dumped, and so she had to have some surgery, cleaned up some bone chips on her nose. She had this adorable underbite because of that, because her snout was shortened. She has this funny look. They were just smitten with her because she has that terrible tail and they could convey that she was mistreated and she was so loving. That give and take of affection is so good for those guys.

“Empathy is such a big thing because many times people are able to do something, maybe commit a crime, because you don’t feel what that victim of that crime is going to feel,” Porte said. “You’re not empathetic with them and with these dogs they understand, because you’re responsible about the needs of that dog.

“Sophie, the dog that was injured, was adopted by an officer. Luna, the first dog, was adopted by an officer. We’ve had two dogs adopted by inmates — inmates’ family I should say. I told the guys we really need to get those dogs outside of our own circle. You can’t keep them all out there. Honey is going to Ruidoso today, and we’ve got two dogs out there that are going to Colorado and then we’ve got Annie, our parole violator out there, it’s just an amazing program,” Porte said.

Since the program started, 10 dogs with two inmates each went through the program. “This is a job for them within the system, Porte said. “They had to be interviewed and approved to be a handler; they had to go through training, some video training and some book training to have that basic knowledge themselves. Then the dog lives with them 24/7. It’s great. The benefits are multi-fold. One, the dogs get some skills that make them more adoptable. We have a lot of animals that go out there right off of death row, so to speak, and they’re typically big dogs, pit bulls of some sort, or a dog that’s been abandoned in the county, and so those dogs are the ones that are vetted by the shelter, they are spayed or neutered, they have all of their vaccinations up to date before they go out to the prison.”

The design of RCC is unique, which is beneficial to the program, Porte said. “Instead of a typical jail cell that you think in your mind with bars, they live in those dorm facilities and so our trainers are separate from others, they are in a particular dorm and it is an open space. They have kind of a cubical area, the dogs live with them. They have a kennel there and they just live with the guys 24/7. It’s great for the dogs.”

Asked how long it takes to train a dog, Porte said, “It depends on the dog. We have one dog out there right now, she’s this beautiful hound dog. She has a beagle coloring, but she’s a bird dog of some kind. She’s a genius. Well, she needs a lot of stimulation and exercise. I need a dog that just lays around, so she’s not for me. Well, she was adopted, but she was not the dog for this family because she kept escaping. She’s just clever. We had to take her back to the prison. The guys got quite a tickle out of that, because here she was back, and one of the men said, ‘Well, you’re just like 87% of us.’ And I laughed thinking, oh, he’s taking a class, he’s educating himself about things that are important. They laughed about her. So she’s been there the longest, cause she’s come for a second run. It’s not because she’s not following her commands, she just needs a special family.”

After talking about the training of the dogs themselves, Porte explained that the qualified inmates who want to become handlers have to pass a training as well. These inmates are on average between their late 20s and early 30s. “So far, we have just used video training that they watch themselves,” Porte said. “I did a fundraiser on Facebook recently, to hire a trainer to go out — Jimmy Preston — he is going to do a training class for us. It was scheduled actually for the 19th (April). However, the prison has closed to all outside activities (because of COVID-19) and so we have to reschedule that. They’ll have somebody in person because that kind of training is so different as if there is any kind of language barrier, any kind of reading or comprehension barrier with the tools that they have right now. Having this face-to-face trainer is going to be fabulous because they can ask questions specific to their dogs and then they are going to have those fresh tools to work with a new set of dogs. The way that you interact is very different (live) when it’s face to face. It is great that Jimmy did that because he had to go through a process to get approved and I think that will be very beneficial to the program. To the guys, we have a couple guys interested in doing things after the fact — after they are released. It’s been really neat to be a part of it.”

The shelter takes care of pet food and all veterinarian bills. The shelter also has support from a nonprofit agency. “Basta New Mexico (is) a nonprofit that supports New Mexico nonprofits,” Porte said. “They reached out to us to help us fundraise for the shelter. They came out, saw the shelter, went out, met the men; they went through the process so they could see the dogs, meet the handlers. They were able to secure dog beds to go out to the prison and then they have been working tirelessly to get one of the shelter buildings plumbed. They are putting a big tub, plumbing; they are looking for flooring. They’ve got volunteers to do so much work and the inmates were going to come and help, as well. They have done welding and yard work. We are having two workdays and Basta has helped with so much of that and that helps to keep those dogs out in that program out there.”

After a forever home is found for a dog, the new place will be checked before the RCC and the dog’s handler receives the information. This may be not easy for the inmates. Working so close with the dogs, there is understandably a bond forged. “It breaks my heart because I like these guys,” Porte said. To help with the loss, Porte makes sure that a new dog gets assigned to the handlers as soon as possible.

Porte said that next to the people mentioned, Dan Jennings is supporting the program. Jennings is RCC’s educational facilitator who is in charge of training materials and educational support.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, RCC is closed for visitors. In an email, Warden Benavides wrote, “The Roswell Correctional Center (RCC) inmates continue to give back to the community. Recently, the Hope for PAWS program from RCC trained and helped two dogs find their forever homes. Hope for PAWS is a nonprofit organization who works with local no-kill shelters to find dogs homes. RCC inmates take great pride in training the dogs and aiding in the adoption process. Inmates gain a sense of pride and make them feel better for contributing to the community. In return, RCC has received two more dogs to train and get ready for the next family.”

Porte took the two young dogs, Heidi and Blue, and handed them to Carrell. “It was a chore to get them to the control center,” she said. “Neither had ever been on a leash! It was like walking two twisters.”

For more information, visit allhearts4paws.org or call 575-626-4661.

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