For the next few weeks, 4 Your Pets will be highlighting Ruff Start Rescue, a unique, non-profit animal rescue in central Minnesota.
Late last spring, Ruff Start Rescue founder Azure Davis and company started a program at the Moose Lake Correctional Facility, where rescue dogs are paired up with select offender trainers.
When interested inmates apply to be a trainer, they must first take a test on basic canine knowledge and have a face-to-face interview with unit staff. They gain final approval through internal procedures decided upon by both Ruff Start and Moose Lake officials.
“The trainers of the program were given the tools they need to be successful with demonstrations of training and literature on dog-training,” Ruff Start prison placement coordinator Holly Schenz said. “They have been given instruction on positive-reinforcement training only. The dogs are trained in basic obedience and companion dog skills.”
Two dogs were initially introduced into the program, and over the past year, 15 dogs have participated so far – with typically three or four on-site at a time. Eight of the program’s dogs were eventually adopted, and are still with their families to this day.
Dogs that are accepted into the program must originally come from shelters and be over six months old. The only exception to those rules so far is a dog named Rocky, who was surrendered after his vet bills – due to eating rocks – were too much for his owner to bear.
Schenz says when dogs enter the program, they are at Moose Lake for at least 30 days. They are available for adoption on Ruff Start’s website during this period.
“The rescue volunteers work with the families to set up meetings on the weekend where the dogs are busted out on doggie ‘furlough’ to visit with those families,” Schenz said. “Then, the dog goes back to the program and finishes their time in the program and the family can decide if they wish to adopt.”
She says the dogs are “pardoned” after being there for those 30 days, or until they demonstrate significant improvement.
There are four dogs currently at Moose Lake: Alison, Leroy, Neil and Rosita.
They get everything they would have in a foster home, including food, toys, kennels, etc. – all of which are provided by Ruff Start.
They even get their own yard to play in, and the facility is currently allowing the pups to socialize and hit the running track on the main yard.
Davis says it took a long time to get the program up and running, but it was all worth it.
“They have never done this before and neither did we, so it was new for both of us and it’s been working wonderful,” she said.
Davis says the dogs are with their offender trainers just about everywhere they go, with two inmates sharing responsibility of one dog at a time.
“The dog is really never alone very often at all,” Davis said. “The dogs that have come out of there have learned a lot of tricks and training, and come out seeming well-rounded.”
Schenz says both the dogs and the inmates benefit from the experience. The rescue dogs obtain crucial socialization and training skills, which help them to be better pets for their families at their “forever homes.”
Inmates get to hold themselves accountable and responsible for something other than themselves, and they learn to cope with loss when their companion is eventually adopted.
“Here are guys who have been in there for 20 years that are just shut down emotionally, and they don’t come out of their shell, they don’t go out of their way to talk to other inmates or guards or anything like that,” she said. “And these dogs have lightened their outlook and given them a more positive attitude and kind of helped the whole surrounding environment.”
The offender trainers are not provided with any information about who adopts the dogs.
Schenz says the program has not only benefited several dogs and inmates, but it has also helped grow their northern Minnesota volunteer base.
“The staff are getting involved and helping spread the word and rescue mission in an area that was in need of it,” she said.
And by the way, there is one adorable, little guy named Maxwell who has been through the program and is still looking for his forever home.
If you would like to adopt or sponsor an animal, make a donation to help Ruff Start Rescue or become one of their volunteers, click here.
Ruff Start will be holding their 3rd annual Wellness Clinic in Zimmerman on Saturday, April 25.
Dogs can receive discounted vaccinations for distemper, bordetella and Lyme disease, as well as low-cost heartworm and 4dx tests.
Cats can get discounted distemper and feline leukemia vaccines, and both cats and dogs can get discounted micro-chips and nail trims.
Their partner, Northwoods Animals Hospital, will also provide low-cost rabies vaccinations.
The clinic will be at the Zimmerman Civic Building from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Click here for more information.
WCCO has already done several stories that featured Ruff Start Rescue. Click here to check them out!
~ Stephen Swanson