Among a sea of green jumpsuits at the Monroe County Correctional Facility, Rugby’s huge pit bull smile and wagging tail stands out.
He’s the first dog to participate in "A New Leash on Life", a recent partnership between the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Humane Society of Greater Rochester, which trains Monroe County jail inmates to handle “unadoptable” dogs. The dogs stay at the facility in Brighton for six to eight weeks and are with their trainers 24-7, learning commands and proper dog behavior.
Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn said it’s a win for all parties.
“Inmate handlers learn to take responsibility for taking care of a dog and learning the specific job skills and life skills required in that. And the dogs become adoptable and hopefully find new homes and free up space in the shelters,” O'Flynn explained.
These skills, he said, can translate to the real world. Trainers will end their sentence with real dog training skills and experience to pursue work in that field.
Geno Tavolino is an inmate and one of Rugby’s handlers. He said when he first got to the facility, the dog would pee on the walls but now Tavolino shows off Rugby’s leash walking. He doesn’t pull. He takes treats gently and he’s friendly with strangers.
The dog has also changed the dynamic of the 40-person bunker he lives in.
“It’s something very different,” Tavolino said, explaining how the other inmates also enjoy seeing Rugby. “He reminds me of my own dog. He’s been very friendly.”
Tavolino said he wants to adopt the dog himself when his sentence is over.
“The inmates really do learn four basic principles: patience, tolerance, persistence and empathy. And how it feels to make a real difference in the community,” said O’Flynn.
Gillian Hargrave, vice president and chief operating officer at Lollypop Farm, said the program can help with overcrowding at local shelters. If dogs are trained correctly, it’s more likely they’ll be adopted and less likely they’ll be surrendered again for behavior issues. She said the training may also take better because the dog isn’t in the shelter, which can sometimes be stressful for some dogs.
“These dogs not only benefit from being out of the shelter but they’re learning to be good pet citizens to ultimately become adopted into new families,” she said.
Rugby is the Facility’s only canine resident but O’Flynn said he hopes to expand the program to include more dogs and more inmates.