Therapy dogs trained by Ventura County inmates graduate after 22 weeks
When he first met Hank, Andrew Woods knew the two had a lot in common.
“We were both thrown in a place we weren’t used to — away from the familiar, with nobody to comfort us but each other,” Woods said. “He helped me with my anger when I was upset. ... He saved me from myself when I wanted to self-destruct.”
Woods is an inmate at Todd Road Jail. Hank is a shelter dog from Ventura County Animal Services.
The two were paired through the jail's R.U.F.F. Road program, which stands for Rehabilitation Utilizing Furry Friends. The program pairs shelter dogs with selected inmates who are taught how to train the canines to become therapy dogs.
Woods contends that before Hank came along, he'd never had the opportunity to do anything positive or life-changing while behind bars.
“It was always the same way of thinking for me: Make my own rules and continue the same upon release,” Woods said. “I had the mentality of a gang member and convict, and it shows in my history in jail.”
But things turned around when he met Hank.
“I no longer want to do bad to represent a gang,” Woods said. “I want to do good to represent this R.U.F.F. Road program in hopes to give back to a community I took so much from.”
Woods offered this testimonial on July 13 during a graduation ceremony at Todd Road Jail for the dogs that have worked with the inmates for the last 22 weeks. The program involved four dogs — all named after fallen officers — which were each paired with two inmates. After the graduation, the dogs went home with their new owners, all of whom attended the ceremony.
Woods’ dog was named after Harvey “Hank” A. Varat, a lieutenant who was on a search and rescue training exercise in the Santa Susana Mountains when he was bitten by a tick and infected with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
“The dogs will continue to serve their community in the name of the fallen officers — they will serve as therapy dogs,” said Ventura County Sheriff's Cmdr. Ron Nelson. “The training has been seven days a week, several hours a day. The dogs live with them 24 hours a day in their housing units.”
The dogs are taught about 30 commands during the 22-week training period.
The R.U.F.F. Road program operates under the umbrella of VIP Dog Teams, a nonprofit founded by Nancy Mitchell in 2016 to serve individuals in Ventura County with special needs. The effort began with therapy work at local hospitals and libraries with her dogs, and now VIP Dog Teams is training therapy dogs.
“Dogs have amazing ways of connecting with people, with everyone, but particularly with people who have special needs," Mitchell said. "They sense something about the people, whether they’re sad, scared or they just need a friend. When you have special needs, the general public sees your differences; a dog doesn’t. It’s the same thing as when we’re here in the jail.”
Inmates wanting to participate must go through a selection process that starts with filling out an application. Once they meet the requirements, they go through a formal interview, said Robert Maclean, a senior deputy who supervises the program, along with Senior Deputy Amy Ward.
The dogs are taken out of the jail at least every other weekend to socialize in the community, and whenever possible, they spend the weekend at a foster home.
The dogs not only have a positive impact on their handlers, they have a “calming effect” on all the inmates in the housing unit, Maclean said.
“It’s really lowered the tension levels tremendously,” he said.
“We had an inmate tell us that he came back from court one day because he had a court appearance and he had a particularly bad day,” Maclean recalled. “He was in the housing section and the dog sensed it, came up to him and sat right next to him, and made him feel so much better.”
Another time, a dog defused a situation that could have turned ugly.
“The argument escalated and normally it probably would have gone to a physical fight,” Maclean remembered. “But somebody in this housing unit said, ‘Hey guys, there’s a dog in here, knock it off,’ and it de-escalated the whole thing.”
For inmate Wesley Hall, who was also paired with Hank, the experience made him think about better times.
“I was looking at Hank when such a deep sense of appreciation for my mom swelled up inside of me,” Hall said. “I thought of everything she did for me and everything she put up with any time I was feeling lazy or impatient toward Hank. Love perseveres, love doesn’t give up.”
After the graduation ceremony, Lindsay Loft, of Camarillo, took home Haynie, a Norfolk terrier.
“I live with my grandfather, so he’s going to be a companion for Grandpa while I’m at work,” Loft said. “I did it for Grandpa. I figured if they were already trained for therapy they’d make a good companion. He’s 87 and still with it, but a little slow, and it’s nice for him to have some company.”
Hall said that the family adopting Hank is getting more than a dog.
"They’re getting a story of a unique experience filled with love and hope,” he said. “The incarcerated are capable of rehabilitation and worthy of the effort to contribute to a better world. This is a step in the right direction. My hope is just the beginning.”
How Can You Help With R.U.F.F. Road
(Rehabilitation Utilizing Furry Friends)
- VIP Mutt Poster - Any amount you would like to give: (the poster is $250).
- So R.U.F.F. Road dogs can help spread the word about VIP G.O.T. Dogs (Goal Oriented Therapy Dogs)
- Food (for 6 weeks) - $60
- Training Treats (for four weeks) - $20
- Heart Guard and Nex Guard (for six months) - $195
- Pet Insurance (for 1 month) - $33
- Therapy Vest - $25
- Training Harness & Leash - $45
- Crate & Bed - $54
- Private Training (1 hour) - $100
- Please let us know if you want your gift to be a monthly donation (you can stop it at any time).
Under the guidance of inmates, the dogs will learn not to be afraid or startled by things the average dog rarely encounters; like wheelchairs and automatic doors, said VIP Dog Teams trainer Christy Reed-Habrzyk, adding that she was careful in selecting the animals for the program.
“We’re looking for certain personality traits,” she said. “We actually have a set of 12 criteria that we look for. We want to make sure that the dog is not aggressive and that they accept being touched and handled. But testing them out in the shelter is always a little daunting, because you don’t always know if that’s their true nature when you get them outside the shelter.”
Twice a week, Reed-Habrzyk will be at the jail working with the dogs and eight inmates, four men and four women, who were screened for the program by Senior Dep. Shawn Pewsey. The inmates filled out applications and met last week with Mitchell and Reed-Habrzyk for an orientation, the trainer said.
“They’re really excited about working with the dogs,” she said.
Just having man’s best friend around the place changes the entire atmosphere at the 150-acre facility, said Pewsey, who runs the program.
“You walk in with the dogs and people in our classrooms are just glued to the windows. Everyone just loves the dogs,” he said.
Before partnering with the county animal shelter on the RUFF (Rehabilitation Utilizing Furry Friends) Road program last year, officials in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office detention services division looked into how similar canine programs worked at other jails, he said.
The inmates who work with the dogs often experience a reduction in tension and depression, Pewsey said.
“You see (inmates in the program) kind of opening up more, communicating with staff more,” he said. “At our ceremony last year, the inmates talked about how working with the dogs helped them feel less tense and stressed.”
Naming the program’s canines after the fallen deputies was a way to honor and remember the officers, Pewsey said.
After they graduate the therapy dogs will need homes, and their new owners must agree to take the dogs to their therapy assignments, about twice a month, Mitchell said. The owners also have to complete a training course.
“It’s a triple win,” said Mitchell. “We rescue a dog from the shelter; we help rehabilitate an inmate by teaching them how to train a therapy dog; and we put a trained therapy dog into the Ventura County community.”