INTERVIEWS BY HILDA BURKE AND ELLEN DEGENERES / FORMATTED BY JOSH JAKOBITZ
On an idyllic sun-drenched day in California, I find myself in jail. But unlike the 5,000 or so inmates of North Kern State Prison, located 150 miles north of Los Angeles, I’m here voluntarily, accompanied by Zach Skow, a man on a mission to bring dogs into every U.S. prison.
Skow is the founder of Pawsitive Change, a rehabilitation program that pairs rescue dogs with inmates. He began a pilot program at California City Correctional Facility in January 2016, teaching inmates to become dog trainers, and it’s now been rolled out to four more California state prisons and one female juvenile correction center.
To date, more than 300 men have graduated from the program and roughly 200 dogs from “high-kill” shelters have been rescued and adopted as a result of the inmates’ work with them. Seventeen of the program’s human graduates have been paroled, and so far, none has returned to prison. The majority of the dogs they trained have been awarded the Canine Good Citizen certification in recognition of good behavior and obedience. Two of the canine graduates have been certified as therapy dogs and several others are in training to be service dogs for military veterans.
Skow was recently on Ellen to share his personal story behind the Pawsitive Change program: his own dogs saved his life when he’d been sent home to die of liver failure at the age of 28. Unable to qualify for a liver transplant after years of heavy alcohol abuse and drug use had ruined his quality of life, he found himself curled up in bed, sick, soiled and ready to die. That’s when he realized the three dogs in his bed with him didn’t care about how he looked – emaciated and yellow – or how he smelled – of feces and sweat. Skow told Ellen DeGeneres, “I decided in that moment to live, not for myself, but for my dogs. Their unconditional love and emotion support pushed me to get out of bed and take them on a walk.” He added, “At first, I couldn’t go very far, but on every walk, we went further, and I found myself adding dogs to our group. We went from three to five to seven to ten… and just kept growing as a group.”
Skow’s liver regenerated, and he was taken off the transplant list. He’s since made a full recovery and lives as a sober man, with a mission to pair humans and canines to repair emotional, mental, and physical traumas. During his time in AA meetings, a mentor piqued his interest in the U.S. prison system, where he thought he could pair inmates and large dogs from shelters at a high risk of being killed.
His initiative has earned him accolades from the White House and, more recently, a guest appearance on Ellen, where she gave him $20,000 toward furthering his work. I joined him in the second week of the 14-week course at North Kern, together with two dozen inmate students and head trainer Robert Villaneda. I’ve been in some form of education my whole life – school, university, drama school, therapist training college – but what I witness in terms of student engagement is unprecedented. In every classroom I’ve ever sat in, there’s been a healthy proportion of students checking their phone, looking out the window, chatting or grabbing a few winks. At North Kern, however, the students are totally engaged, taking copious notes, asking questions and sharing knowledge.
To have made it on to the course, they have each submitted essays on what they’d bring to the program and why they want to do it. The only inmates excluded are those who have been convicted of violence against animals or sexual assault.
While Villaneda leads the session, he frequently hands over to the program mentors: men who’ve already completed the course several times. In terms of attentiveness to their canine charges, the students would put any dedicated helicopter parent to shame. They give detailed accounts of bowel movements; how one dog won’t eat in front of other people; how another won’t go to the toilet until all the others have gone first. Skow explains that a core part of the program involves the students (he never refers to them as “inmates”, rather “trainers” or “rescuers”) being aware of and identifying their own emotional states at any given time. “Animals don’t follow unbalanced energy,” he says, “so we need the guys to be able to recognize if they’re off their center and, crucially, how to get themselves on a level again.”
As I watch the men go through their paces with their dogs, I am immediately impressed. Working with the dogs and seeing what the animals are going through prompts the men to speak of their own experiences. When one student relates how his dog didn’t want to come out of the kennel in the first few days, another shares how he too didn’t want to leave his cell when he first came to prison. As a therapist, I found the Pawsitive Change students’ level of emotional literacy and ability to be vulnerable staggering.
Two themes that repeatedly come up in my conversations with the students are trust and responsibility. Many of these men have been told repeatedly from a young age that they’re not to be trusted, that they make a mess of things, that they’re not fit to take charge of anything. This message is then reinforced as they progress through the penal system. If I’ve learned one thing while working as a psychotherapist, it’s that what we’re told we’ll become, we’ll become. This program challenges the “branding” these men have had imposed on them from an early age. It allows them to create new narratives and build futures ready for integration with the outside world.