What do teenaged inmates and homeless dogs have in common? According to nonprofit organization Rescue Dogs Rescue Soldiers founder Liz Keller, “They are alone. They are scared. They miss their family and they need love.”
That’s why the Rikers Rovers program at Rikers Island is pure genius. For nine weeks, a dog who would otherwise likely end up on death row gets to live with the juvenile inmates at the notorious New York jail, where it undergoes training and socialization that will increase its chances of being adopted.
But the dog isn’t the only one benefiting from the arrangement. “I used to have a lot of anger and she helped calm me down,” says one Rikers Island inmate about Roxy, a brindle Pit Bull who made it through the nine week program and graduated a completely changed pup.
Yoda and Roxy
“She was kind of nippy,” an inmate reported to the NY Daily News on a visit to the complex. “I would spray apple vinegar on my hand. That stopped it.” The teenagers, all awaiting trials for different offenses, are tasked with the care and training of each pup that goes through the program, including 5 a.m. walks. Staff quickly saw the positive effect the dogs had on the teenagers.
“I see personal growth,” said deputy commissioner of Youthful Offender and Young Adult Programming Winette Saunders Jackson. “I see how they are a little more empowered and they can do something different.” At the end of the nine weeks, a graduation ceremony is held for the pups and the inmates, where they receive dog training certificates with a few family members in attendance.
The program has been going since 2014 and has saved eight dogs, including one pup who went on to become a companion dog for a veteran suffering from PTSD. Despite the encouraging success, Keller doesn’t know how much longer she can keep Rikers Rovers running, as the program runs solely off donations and does not receive funding from the city.
To learn more about the amazing program behind this initiative and how to make a donation, visit the Rescue Dogs Rescue Soldiers website.