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Inmates turn unwanted pets into service animals

Inmates turn unwanted pets into service animals
An inmate with the furry friend he’s training for Cell Dogs. (Courtesy of Cell Dogs)

Janette Thomas is all about second chances.

Nobody, in her view, is beyond redemption, including convicted criminals.

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That’s why Thomas founded Cell Dogs, an Orange County group that rescues dogs from local shelters and pairs them with inmates who train them for adoption.

“The mission of our group is second chances for shelter dogs and people who have made poor choices in their lives,” said Thomas, 63, of Tustin.

The organization is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary with its annual fundraiser on Sept. 26. Thomas started the group on her own and ran it for about five years.

Cell Dogs has seven members: three trainers, a grant writer, a clerical support specialist, an outreach coordinator and Thomas, a retiree who is the only full-time member.

Throughout the year, the group takes dogs from shelters and brings them to correctional facilities where inmates train them during an eight- to- 10-week course. Juvenile and adult convicts participate in the program.

Cell Dogs partners with correctional facilities and shelters. The group runs programs with Orange County Probation and at the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine, a jail run by the county sheriff’s department. Thomas said the training program is redemptive for inmates who are given a chance to learn new skills, opening doors to potential career opportunities after their sentences are served.

“You have to develop a sense of responsibility and patience to train dogs,” Thomas said.

Prison dog-training programs are not uncommon, and Thomas said they’ve been shown to reduce recidivism.

The canines are trained in basic obedience, such as how to sit and walk on a leash. The dogs never return to the shelter after departing, staying with their trainers until “graduation,” when about 80% of them are adopted.

Some that have shown a predilection for learning go on to be trained as service dogs.

Thomas said the other 20% are adopted by children with autism, the physically disabled and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cell Dogs has placed more than 300 dogs into new homes.

Erin Quintanilla, 34, of Orange received a service dog from the group about two years ago to help her with daily tasks she’s unable to perform because she uses a wheelchair. Quintanilla has Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative neurological disease.

Blossom, a 3-year-old chocolate Labrador, provides crucial services — picking things up for Quintanilla, pulling her wheelchair and closing doors for her, among other tasks.

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“Blossom is my lifeline,” Quintanilla said. “She helps me be so much more independent.”

Quintanilla said Blossom is an example of what the nonprofit organization can accomplish.

“I am proud that Blossom has touched more than just my life, she also helped an inmate,” Quintanilla said. “She’s helped two people in her little life.”

Thomas said clients are sometimes apprehensive about adopting a canine trained by a convict.

Quintanilla said her concerns were allayed after learning the inmates wouldn’t know her identity or address. She never learned the identity of the inmate who trained Blossom or what befell her. “I just hope she is living her best life,” Quintanilla said.

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