Loyal customers of Encore designer consignment boutique expect to see tails wagging while they shop. Owner Susan Jacobs-Meadows enjoys spending her work day with beloved canine companions close at heel. She’s long felt the importance of the connection shared with those pets — the simple grace and power of nurturing an animal and receiving their unconditional love in return. So when Susan discovered information about inmate-canine training and work rehabilitation programs, she locked onto the concept. Susan fully understands the transformative impact such discipline could have for both trainer and trainee, and she became determined to develop a local organization that provides this service. In July 2013, Susan’s project, Canine Cellmates, launched with the mission to rescue shelter dogs, place them with inmates for one-on-one training and then find the dogs permanent homes. Here’s her story:
First question on everyone’s mind: How did you decide to start this?
I heard about programs like this in some other states, and I was immediately interested. The idea to start one myself was something that just grew. A friend of mine who worked at the Fulton County Jail was in the process of implementing a work release program, and asked if I, as a business owner, could facilitate finding other business owners who would be open to the possibility of hiring inmates after release. Ultimately, in exchange for my help with his program, he helped me get in the door to discuss my ideas with Fulton County Jail.
What were your first steps to establish Canine Cellmates?
First, I devised a preliminary plan, called a couple of people who I thought might want to participate and set the first meeting. From there, dozens of meetings with many hurdles commenced, many plans were revised and I visited a similar program in Florida. Eighteen months later, we launched!
How do you choose the right dogs for the Canine Cellmates training?
Our dogs all come from Fulton County Animal Services. We spend hours selecting the right dogs — looking at all the websites FCAS uses, creating spreadsheets of potentials, talking with adoption contacts, and adding or removing dogs from our list. Then our temperament assessment team screens the dogs, who MUST pass each point of that screening or else they cannot be taken into the program. The jail is a stressful environment; if a dog shows anything less than a positive response to the evaluation, we will absolutely see that behavior once they get to the jail. It is tough for shelter dogs to pass these tests, so it’s an exhaustive process. While our goal is to have the greatest diversity of size, color and breed, sometimes that isn’t possible, given how few dogs pass the assessment.
Tell us about the inmates … how do they qualify to become trainers with the program?
The inmates are felony offenders — most of them repeat felony offenders — but no violent charges such as murder, rape, or child or animal cruelty. They also must pass an assessment that is administered by a counselor at the jail. Then I interview them individually to evaluate their appropriateness for the program.
Give us a basic summary of the training process.
We have our own training manual and send certified trainers and training assistants. Comprehensive training classes prepare the trainers to teach these skills to the inmates who have qualified for the program. Once an inmate is paired with a dog, they together start an eight-week, progressive program, with each week’s benchmarks building on the prior learned behaviors. The dogs live with the inmates during the entire program. There’s a defined schedule that outlines specific times during the day that the inmates work with the dogs on training skills, as well as socialization and play time.
What skills do the inmates develop as part of their involvement? What impact does Canine Cellmates have on their lives?
Responsibility and accountability — from the day-to-day care of dogs, including feeding and basic grooming, to the basics of dog training and acquiring a skill set they can use after release, if they choose. We also have an educational component to our program — we bring speakers in to talk to the guys about all kinds of dog-related topics, like pet overpopulation, spay/neuter, breed-specific legislation, tethering, a day in the life of a shelter dog, pit bull advocacy, etc. We even bring in inspirational speakers like Xena the Warrior Puppy, Happy the Sled Dog, etc. The guys are also interacting with people outside their usual social circles. Our goal is to open the minds and hearts of the guys in our program to possibilities they may have never imagined for themselves. Much of our educational series centers around a common theme of One Person Can Make a Difference.
Who gets the dogs after they’ve been trained?
Through an application and interview process, dogs are adopted into loving, forever homes. We are extremely selective, as we are not a typical rescue. We invest hours of work with the dogs, weeks of training and bonding with them, and they become part of our family. We want them to have the best homes, so that they are loved and stay in that home for the rest of their lives. We’ve even had some become service dogs! So far, we’ve rescued, trained and placed over 30 dogs.
What’s your vision for the future of Canine Cellmates?
To grow this into something larger and more comprehensive. Eventually, maybe have our own transitional housing facility, which would also include a resource center that helps with educational development, like computer classes, GED tutoring and job placement. I’d love for the community to embrace us in this effort and step up to be a part of our after-care team — mentoring our guys, giving them jobs and assisting in their guidance. I would also like to completely document our program and build a model to share with other facilities, both national and international. We’ve had many requests to do this, but we are not yet ready.
Who have been some of your mentors and what advice have they given you?
My husband’s my biggest supporter and my greatest source of strength — not just me, but he’s also bolstered the guys released from our program in countless ways most people will never know. My oldest brother has been a big champion, reminding me regularly to “just remember, if it was easy, everyone would do it.”
It’s been said that pets resemble their people. What similarities do you share with your dogs? And if in a parallel universe you were a dog, which breed would you be?
I’m probably a combination of all my dogs to some degree. Many times, I have the joy of my Boxer and revel in the beauty of the moment. Other times, I share the laser focus of my Dogo mix, fixated on what’s ahead of me and how to get it. There are occasions I might seem like my young (Great) Dane, a bit crazy and out of control, but I can also be like my more calm and settled Rhodesian Ridgeback mix. However in my next life, I definitely want to come back as a Boxer!
Where’s your ideal vacation spot? What about your fantasy travel destination?
My ideal vacation spot is somewhere with my husband and, ideally, our dogs (difficult to accomplish with four dogs weighing from 55 to 140 pounds!). We love the water, so somewhere on the beach is great. Fantasy travel? I would love to go to Greece.
Which book do you most often recommend or give as a gift?
One of my very favorites — The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski — offers such an interesting perspective and, obviously, there are dogs in the book!
Aside from family, friends and faith, name three things without which you couldn’t live.
- Do my dogs count as family in this question? Can’t imagine my life without dogs.
- I love a glass of wonderful and interesting wine.
- Books and more time to read them!
Susan, you’re amazing. Your energy, tenacity and sheer endurance empower both man and dog. To find out how you can help Canine Cellmates, whether through volunteering or financial donations, visit caninecellmates.org or follow their updates on Facebook.
Read through more of our inspiring FACES stories here.
And Cat, of CatMax Photography, is a fellow dog-lover, who we know enjoyed this photo shoot as much as we did. Thank you, Cat, for the fabulous photos!