Inmates at Prairie du Chien prison help rescue dog heal from life of trauma

Coulee Region Humane Society Executive Director Heather Hankins walks with Ophelia last week at the animal shelter in Onalaska. Ophelia was rescued from an animal hoarder last fall in the town of Onalaska.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

When Ophelia arrived at the Coulee Region Humane Society last October, she bore the physical and emotional scars of a life in squalid captivity. Malnourished and covered in sores — with one ear partially ripped off — the frightened dog had experienced little affection and kindness from humans.

Yet she found just that from an unexpected source: a group of inmates with scars of their own.

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Inmates at Prairie du Chien prison help rescue dog heal from life of trauma

After being rescued from an Onalaska home and participating in a prison dog program in Prairie du Chien, Ophelia, a 5-year-old Catahoula cur, is being adopted by a prison guard who worked with her.

The 5-year-old Catahoula was one of eight dogs and dozens of other animals and rodents seized during an animal hoarding and maltreatment investigation at a town of Onalaska home last fall. The dogs were taken to the Coulee Region Humane Society as their previous owners, Linda and Carol West, awaited trial.

While the animals received plenty of exercise, biscuits and care during their extensive stay, the stress of long hours spent in a kennel can take a toll.

“It can be terrible for their mentality,” said Heather Hankins, executive director of CRHS. “We needed to get (Ophelia) out of here to gain life experience and learn love.”

Ophelia struggled during a two-week stay in a foster home, and when the shelter was given permission to adopt out the dogs in late April, Hankins knew Ophelia’s behavioral issues would hinder her chances of finding a forever home.

However, the sweet but stubborn dog was an ideal candidate for the first ever WAGS — Working with Animals to Gain Socialization — program at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution, a currently exclusive partnership with CRHS which pairs teams of four inmates, who must apply for the program and meet qualifications, with a dog in need of extra training.

On May 4, Ophelia and four other dogs from CRHS arrived at PDCI to learn basic obedience skills and commands, residing in the communal cell of their trainers, who were responsible for feeding, walking and cleaning up after the dogs 24/7, as well as taking them on two- to four-mile runs daily in the courtyard area. Volunteer Bev Pozega came in once a week to lead a training class, and during Hankins’ frequent check-ins at the prison, she witnessed an impressive transformation in Ophelia, both in her physique and mentality.

“When I took (Ophelia) down there, her tail was between her legs. She seemed depressed,” Hankins said. “When I came back week after week, her tail was always up and wagging. My biggest goal was to get her out of her shell and feel what it’s like to just be a dog. She’s a lot more easy going now and more trusting. She’s learned sit, stay, shake, roll over. She’s very food motivated — she’s put on a some pounds due to the motivation.”

In addition to the basics, the inmates, who nicknamed her “Puppychula,” taught her to high five and roll over, and made up creative commands such as “mama sit your booty,” an instruction to back up while seated. They learned her quirks — a love for ice cubes and possessiveness of toys — and how to soothe her during “dogmares.”

While some were initially cautious, the CRHS staff quickly embraced the program, which is of no extra cost to the shelter, after seeing photos of a somewhat plumper and much more content Ophelia wearing a pink flowered collar hand crocheted by an inmate.

“The inmates all said she’s the princess of the group (of dogs),” Hankins said. “Here are these big tough guys talking baby talk. I knew the experience would be amazing for the dogs, but I didn’t know how amazing it would be for the people. Watching the inmates from before the dog to after, they’re like truly different people. This doesn’t reduce their sentence or time — they want to give back and help someone or something else become better. One of them said, ‘She’s damaged, I’m damaged, and we’re going to help each other through it.’”

“Her scars tell a story — she was (raised) in such hell,” agreed prison staffer Ms. Mumm, who worked on the unit and prefers not to have her first name used. “She’s happier and healthier now, not as skittish. It’s made a huge difference on the inmates, positivity-wise. I think animal therapy is a great thing.”

Last Wednesday, Ophelia, clad in a tiny tasseled cap, was the first graduate of the WAGS program, a celebration with peanut butter frosted “pupcakes” and tears of both sadness and joy. And on Monday, Mumm officially adopted the dog who inspired both prisoners and staff with her resilience.

“When she came on the unit that first day, I saw her and I knew she was the one,” Mumm said. “She’s just lovable and she’s doing great.”

Hankins has high hopes that the other canine trainees will find happy homes, and is excited to continue the program, as are the inmates, who plan to start an internal fundraiser to help all the dogs at the shelter.

“They want to show they appreciate us, and we appreciate them,” Hankins said. “It really feels like a win for everyone right now.”

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Emily Pyrek covers human interest stories, local events and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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