GIG HARBOR, Wash. — A golden retriever on a leash led by a pet technician in scrubs saunters through the lobby of the Washington Corrections Center for Women. It bypasses the metal detector and makes its way across a yard and through several locked gates to its destination: a doggy day care operated by incarcerated women. 

Members of the public can send their dog here for boarding, grooming and training through a program founded with the belief that human-animal bonds could be beneficial to people in prison.

It also offers participants something more: tangible skills that prepare them for in-demand employment once they leave. Through the program, the women can learn to train service dogs and earn industry certifications in pet care and grooming, jobs that are part of a booming pet economy. 

The Gig Harbor program — which is run by a nonprofit called the Prison Pet Partnership that operates on the prison’s grounds — was the first prison pet program in the country. The program, which was founded in 1981, became the model for at least 290 such programs operating across the country today, including six at other Washington prisons.

Amalia Castillo, who is incarcerated at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor, works with a service dog in training, Patrick, on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Castillo is a certified dog handler and certified pet care technician at the prison. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Amalia Castillo is the handler for Patrick, a one-year-old Labrador retriever who is one of two service dogs currently in training. He goes everywhere Castillo goes and sleeps in a kennel in her room. 

“When I got here, I felt defeated. I thought my life was over,” Castillo said. “When they talked about the dog program, it sparked something in me.”

Castillo said she has seven kids, and the program provides an outlet for her maternal instincts. 

“These dogs, they become like our babies,” Castillo said. 

Range of skills

The pet partnership opens up opportunities to train women in a range of skills. Beyond the pet care certificates they can earn, they learn how to problem solve and create business plans.

The women can earn basic and advanced industry-recognized pet care and grooming credentials accredited by professional associations. In addition to getting certified in pet CPR and first aid, they learn about nutrition, animal anatomy, common health issues, how to read dogs’ body language, coat care and breed-standard cuts. 

Toby gets groomed by an incarcerated participant in the Prison Pet Partnership at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The program supplements the training with workshops on business plans, mock interviews and resume writing. The organization gives them kits with clippers, combs and scissors upon release as well as scholarships for continuing education.

The pet services fees from the kennel do not cover all expenses and the nonprofit also relies on grants and donations, said Sam Zuanich, canine behavior and training director.

“We can provide that extra amount of education that they need to either open their own business or be eligible to be hired right away,” said Olivia Simmons, programs director at Prison Pet Partnership.

Jobs for animal care and service workers are projected to grow 16% from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Having access to education and training that provides a direct pathway to jobs is essential for successful reentry into the community.

Some of the women who participate in the Prison Pet Partnership are serving long sentences for serious and violent crimes and have spent years in prison with limited access to job and educational opportunities. Formerly incarcerated people are almost five times more likely to be unemployed than the general population, with women experiencing particularly high rates of unemployment, the Prison Policy Initiative estimates.   

The program also offers a service dog trainer certification program: Participants learn to train dogs who can help people with mobility concerns, seizures and combat-related PTSD, Zuanich said. 

One of the hardest parts is having to say goodbye. Zuanich said they spend a lot of time talking about why the dog is there in the first place. “This dog is not a pet,” they said. “They might save somebody’s life. They might give that person independence.”

Building bonds

The program was originally founded by Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun whose relationship with a German shepherd helped her overcome trauma, abuse and homelessness she experienced as a young woman. The program developed out of her work with Leo Bustad, the former dean of Washington State University’s veterinary school and a pioneer in the field of animal-assisted interventions.   

The program continues to have positive mental health effects and serves as an important emotional outlet in the often hostile prison environment. 

“We’re told not to touch, not to hug. We don’t have a lot of physical interaction with other people,” program participant Danielle Carter said. “So getting to love on an animal and having an animal love on you gives you back something that prison takes away.”

Pets help reduce stress and anxiety, encourage people to be physically active, and increase social connections, according to a March 2024 survey from the American Psychiatric Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association. Experts say that animals may also help people in drug and alcohol recovery, as well as those experiencing depression and other psychiatric conditions. 

Alice Kaleopa, a corrections officer at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor, says goodbye to her dog Mozzy before sending Mozzy to doggy day care at the prison Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

The animals also improve relationships between participants and staff. 

Being able to take Mozzy, her high-energy Australian shepherd puppy, to work with her has been a lifesaver, said correctional officer Alice Kaleopa. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into when she brought him home. 

But after a day at doggy day care, Mozzy is ready to go home and sleep rather than get up to his usual mischievous antics. 

Kaleopa said the program has also improved her relationship with the women who are incarcerated. “Having Mozzy come here has kind of changed my perspective a little bit, with me engaging with the women in a different way,” she said. “They definitely have a passion for what they do. And they’re really, really good at it.”

Animal rescue services also use the program to help socialize animals for adoption. Feisty Felines, a nonprofit cat rescue that serves Pierce and Thurston counties, partners with the prison to run a foster program in which the cats live with women in their housing units. Eighteen cats currently reside at the prison. 

In turn, the animals bring companionship and affection.

As correctional unit supervisor Ed Schulze pulls a blue wagon with a cat carrier into the medium-security housing building, the conversation dims and heads turn. 

“They’re here!” someone calls out. 

“Aww,” more people chime in. 

Schulze delivers two white and tabby kittens, Dionne and Tai, to their temporary home. He warns the two women who will be fostering them that the kittens are pretty wild and “one of them’s a biter.”

The felines are supposed to stay in the women’s rooms, but Schulze said he’s pretty sure the more acclimated cats are allowed to run around the unit every once in a while.

More than a job

A woman incarcerated at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor fosters a cat in her housing unit Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

Employers say program graduates like Melissa McKee demonstrate the program’s promise. She earned several certifications in pet care, grooming and training during the nearly 11 years she spent at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. 

Before she was released in 2017, McKee sent out a letter to all the grooming shops in Olympia. 

Jason Grant, the owner of Grateful Dog Grooming, came to the prison to meet McKee and was so impressed by her skills that he hired her on the spot. Most people learn how to groom in a corporate environment where the focus is on volume, not quality, he said. Besides McKee, he’s hired two other women who trained through the Prison Pet Partnership.

As soon as she got out, McKee started working at Grateful Dog, where she groomed for more than two years while attending The Evergreen State College. “I groomed while I put myself through my undergraduate career,” she said.

McKee says the relationships she developed with animals got her to where she is today. 

She finished her undergraduate degree in 2021, started a career in public policy, and is expected to graduate from a master’s program in public administration in June. She also has her own tortoise, two cats and three dogs, including Harper, a black lab she trained while she was in prison. 

“Grooming was the fast track to employment,” she said. But it also taught her other important skills: consistency, self-regulation and independence. She also learned how to relate differently to other people. 

“A dog gives you an opportunity to rewrite the story of how you showed up in other relationships,” she said. “The things that the dogs themselves taught me changed my entire person.”

This story was co-published with the Seattle Times.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.