Working with dogs has helped Rene Rodriguez stay positive in prison.
The 38-year-old is an inmate at Sanders Estes Correctional Center where he trains and cares for vulnerable dogs through The Prisoners Assisting With Shelters Program (PAWS).
"I've never been a dog person, but I've come to love them and respect them a lot more," he said. "We (the inmates) come from broken homes as well and we come to bond with each other."
Forty inmates are selected to work with the Ellis County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas (SPCA). Together, guided by an SPCA trainer, they prepare dogs for adoption in the 12-week program.
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The program is set up to help with the rehabilitation of offenders as well as to save the dogs from being euthanized. The Ellis County SPCA is not a "no-kill" shelter, meaning that at times it has to euthanize pets for health, space or safety reasons.
"We rarely euthanize a pet, and when we do it's because the pet has become too aggressive or its health is so poor that it can't be rehabilitated," said Chris Bennett, Ellis County SPCA executive director.
Bennett says the PAWS program helps prevent such measures because through training "they become more structured and there's less chances of them being returned to the shelter," he said.
"Everybody here works very hard with them," said SPCA trainer, Tiffany McKee. "When I know that a dog is going to go to a home being trained, I know that the dog is going to more likely stay in that home and have a forever home, compared to being returned to a shelter," said McKee, who mentors the inmates twice a week.
It turns out the pets do just as much for the inmates and their well-being.
"They teach us and we teach them," said Rodriguez. "It's taught me a lot of responsibility and it's helped me to teach other people responsibility."
Rodriguez says training is a collaborative effort among the 40 inmates in the program. "It helps us work as a team," he said.
The Sanders Estes Correctional Center has more than 120 rehabilitation programs for offenders.
"This program is one of our most popular at our facility, so the beds are in high demand," said Amanda Steed, PAWS co-leader. Inmates request to be in the program and once the request is received their disciplinary history is evaluated and if approved they are admitted for training.
At times, saying goodbye to their pets can be the toughest part for inmates, but they do so knowing they have increased the pet's chances for adoption and the opportunity to find its "forever" home.
"You get attached to them," Rodriguez said, as he referred to the last dog he trained who recently got adopted. "It was sad to see him go, but I'm glad he got adopted."