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Inmates turn unwanted pets into service animals

Inmates turn unwanted pets into service animals
An inmate with the dog 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.

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The organization is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary with an annual fundraiser on Sept. 26.

Despite a professional history void of anything animal-related, Thomas started the group on her own and ran the organization for about five years.

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

Throughout the year, the group takes dogs from local shelters and brings them to correctional facilities where inmates train the dogs 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, a jail run by the county sheriff’s department in Irvine.

An inmate with the dog he’s training for Cell Dogs.
An inmate with the dog he’s training for Cell Dogs. (Courtesy of Cell Dogs)

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, like 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 the dogs are adopted.

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

Thomas said the other 20% of dogs 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 due to using a wheelchair. Quintanilla has Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative neurological disease.

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

“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.”

Cell Dogs client Erin Quintanilla with her service dog Blossom.
Cell Dogs client Erin Quintanilla with her service dog Blossom. (Courtesy of Cell Dogs)

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.

Quintanilla 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.

Cell Dogs will host a 30-hour Giving Day starting at 6 a.m. Sept. 26. The time is a designated window for people to donate online or through the mail by sending checks to Cells Dogs, Inc., P.O. Box 23148, Santa Ana, CA 92711-3148. For more information about Cell Dogs, visit celldogs.org/.

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