Dogs, Inmates Bond through Groundbreaking “Common Paws” Program

November 9, 2016

Common Paws

For any homeless pet, exposure to new people, environments and experiences is the best way to become socialized and develop into an ideal companion animal in order to find a loving home.

That’s why this summer, the ASPCA partnered for the first time with the NYC Department of Correction (DOC) at Rikers Island to create the “Common Paws” Program. Through this pilot program, Wilbur and Marcus—two pit bull puppies born at the ASPCA’s Animal Recovery Center following their mother’s rescue from an owner charged with animal cruelty—and two additional dogs from the ASPCA Adoption Center were matched up with carefully-screened inmates for a 10-week residency at Rikers, where the dogs lived in a dormitory setting among the inmates and were attended to 24/7.

The participating inmates worked closely with ASPCA animal behavior counselors to provide the dogs with daily care, companionship, training and socialization. During the 10 weeks, the dogs were taught basic manners and housetraining, and learned to follow commands like sit, stay, and come, and how to bond with people.

Wilbur with a tennis ball

Wilbur, one of the dogs to benefit from the “Common Paws” program.

“I’ve always had dogs in my life, so I was ecstatic when I found that I was selected out of many to be one of the few [inmates] to care for and train dogs during this first cycle,” said one of the inmates who helped train Marcus during the program. “If you give 20 complete strangers four dogs with the same purpose of doing good, you’ll notice how each dog and our group grew as a whole. In a way, you could say we became a family.”

During the 10-week program, Marcus went from a pit bull puppy who didn’t know much about what it meant to be a pet, and graduated from the program knowing how to walk on a leash, and to follow commands like “leave it,” “give paw,” and “crawl.”

“He really evolved into a wonderful pet with many manners and fun tricks to share with his new family,” said Patricia Casey, ASPCA Enrichment Behavior Coordinator.

At the conclusion of the program, the dogs and inmates participated in a “graduation” event, where they demonstrated to their families and Rikers and ASPCA staff the new tricks each dog had learned and celebrated the success of the program.

“The Common Paws Program is part of our coordinated effort to provide structured programs that improve the environment at our facilities, while providing meaningful hands-on experiential learning, self-development, rehabilitation and growth opportunities,” said DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte. “I look forward to watching this program grow.” 

Since the completion of the pilot program, three of the participating dogs have been adopted. The ASPCA continues to work with the NYC DOC on a second round of the program. 

“For the four dogs that participated in the pilot program, the daily dedication of the inmates made a world of difference,” said Casey. “The Common Paws Dogs will reap the rewards of the inmates’ hard work for years to come as they take what they’ve learned and apply it in their new homes.”