Choosing our Pen Pals Pups

On average, we have fifteen dogs in our Pixie’s Pen Pals program at a time, spread between three correctional facilities. When we line up an adoption for one of our pups, we start the search for a new dog to transfer in once we have a spot open. “We try to have less than a week between a dog going out of the prison and a new dog coming in,” explains Sarah Pavilack, our Programs Manager.

When choosing our Pen Pals pups, we are looking for dogs who will succeed in our program, and who aren’t thriving in a shelter environment. Maybe they’re a great dog who is just kennel stressed, or timid, or under-socialized. While we want to help every dog, we have to consider if a prison environment will be right for them. There are loud noises, hustle and bustle, other dogs, and barriers– if the dog shows fear or aggression toward these elements, the prison environment could make the behavior worse, rather than improve it. We work with our shelter partners to identify dogs who will thrive in our program.

We pull from a multitude of shelters in the area, but primarily work with Southside SPCA and Richmond Animal Care and Control (RACC). At Southside, Francee Schuma, who works at the shelter, is the person who primarily selects dogs for us, with the help of Sarah Pavilack and Katie Locks of Lucky Dogs Training and More!, the trainer who works with the handlers at two of our correctional facilities. At Richmond Animal Care and Control, Kasey R. Herrera of 2SpeakDog, who is the trainer at one of our correctional facilities, selects the dogs with guidance from Sarah Pavilack.

On Tuesday, we accompanied Kasey R. Herrera as she visited RACC to find a dog to fill an open space in our program. There, she took us through her steps for finding dogs that will succeed in our program.

Step 1: Tips from the Staff & the Walk Through

Kasey Herrera showing the first step in choosing a Pen Pals dog, the initial walk throughThe first thing Kasey does when she arrives is asks the staff for recommendations. They are familiar with our program, so they will keep us in mind when they get new dogs. After getting their tips, Kasey begins a walk through every wing of the shelter. There are two reasons for this: 1) she wants to see every dog and 2) she wants to gauge their initial reaction to strangers walking by. “I’m usually looking for the dog who sees me and doesn’t immediately alarm bark or freak out,” she says. If the dog seems receptive to her, Kasey will squat down in front of the kennel and allow him to sniff her. “I’m really looking at how this dog reacts in our first meeting.” If she sees potential in the dog, she’ll take a picture and write down his name in her notebook.

During our visit, Kasey’s initial walk-through yielded a list of 11 dogs.




Step 2: The Debrief

When choosing a Pen Pals dog, Kasey will discuss potential matches with shelter staffOnce she has a list of potential dogs, it’s time to talk to the staff. She goes back up to the front desk and inquires about her list. The staff is truly our greatest resource when it comes to picking dogs because they are the ones who are with them all the time. They take them on walks, feed them, bathe them, so they know things about each dog that we might now see in our first encounter. “I want to talk to everyone,” says Kasey. “Everyone has a favorite dog, and everyone has a dog they’ve spotted a behavioral issue in. So, I want feedback from everyone to make sure I’m getting the full profile.”

From talking to the staff, Kasey is able to narrow her list to a few dogs. There are a number of reasons that the staff would recommend we don’t transfer a dog into a program– the dog may be on stray hold, or already have an adoption application pending, or he exhibits behaviors that lead us to believe he wouldn’t thrive in a prison environment.

When we are choosing a Pen Pals dog, we also have to consider the other dogs we have in the correctional facility. We want all our dogs to thrive, so we want the new dog to complement the others. While discussing with the staff, we decided we wanted to pull a hound dog, so we narrowed the list to two.

Step 3: Hands-On Behavior Assessment

When choosing a Pen Pals pup, Kasey Herrera will conduct a hands-on behavior assessment

Kasey conducting a hands-on behavior assessment on Ellee May.

Once Kasey has narrowed it down to two or three dogs, she will conduct a hands-on behavior assessment with each. First, she’ll bring the dog into a visiting room, where they have space to move around and get comfortable. In the visiting room, Kasey will test their boundaries and guarding tendencies with toys and treats. She’ll also test their handling– touching their paws, ears, and snout to see how they respond. “Basically, I want to see what they will and will not let me do,” she explains. She also takes them into the play yard to see how they do. She’ll recruit a staff member to bring another dog into the play yard, and introduce them so she can gauge the dog’s comfort level with other dogs.

While both were great dogs, Ellee May was the standout during the assessment.


Meet Ellee May, our newest Pen Pal!

Meet Ellee May, our newest Pen Pals pupEllee May (formerly known as Miley Cyrus) let Kasey handle her with little care, she loved playing with toys but would give them up when told, and she was eager to please. “She’s super smart. You can see the gears turning in her head,” says Christy Hemsworth, an Adoption Counselor at RACC. During her introduction with another dog, she immediately flopped on her back and showed her belly. She happily submitted and showed no signs of aggression.

Her behavior wasn’t perfect– she loves to jump and can be mouthy when playing with toys, she shows a bit of food guarding, and she could use some help with her house manners (she’s a counter surfer!) — but Kasey could see she has great potential. She’s sweet and smart, and it’s clear she will respond well to the structure and training in our program.

Ellee May was transferred into a Virginia correctional facility last week. Inmate handlers will train her over the next six weeks with the help of Kasey. Once she is done, she will be ready for her forever home!
If’ you’d like to put in an application for Ellee May (for when she is finished with training), you can do so here!


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