By Angela Connell
At just 17 years old, Zach Skow became addicted to drugs and alcohol. After a harrowing medical journey, and being diagnosed with end-stage liver disease, Skow realized that his pups, Marley, Doug, and Buddy, would be left without anyone to care for them. “When I was released from the transplant program and sent home, I became obsessed with taking my own life”, he says, “My dogs helped me put one foot in front of the other and start to try and live”.
This recognition of the unconditional love that those precious pups brought to Skow was the catalyst he needed. In 2009, Skow founded Marley’s Mutts, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to securing second chances for unrescuable dogs who were slated for euthanasia, pairing them with long-term folks inside the California prison system.
“Our program exists to give hope and opportunity to the most vulnerable people and pets within our society”, Zach says. The goal of the program is to prepare 24-30 inmates per program cycle, and their canines, for a test called the Canine Good Citizen Certification, which is extremely difficult and requires continuous training. For 14 weeks, approximately 8-10 dogs and their inmate handlers are partnered to work intensively on improving each other’s social, mental, and even vocational metrics, in the form of homework and personal goals. The curriculum is trauma-informed and based on understanding the unique, intersectional emotions and needs from both the canine and human perspectives, and how to process those emotions productively. “We knew the program would be beneficial in so many ways, but we did not foresee so many of our students graduating, being released from prison, and entering the pet industry workforce, says Skow, “It’s incredible!”
Further from providing holistic transformation to the canines and folks inside, the reduction of recidivism is truly the nucleus of this impactful organization. The participants and their pups learn to cooperate and engage in a positive, team, and collaborative interaction, becoming highly aware of the needs of others, and the community. As a result, there is an increase in self-esteem and social value for humans, and a decrease in anxiety, resource guarding, and fear-based reactivity in the dogs. The co-creation of trust and mutual respect between canine and inmate is truly life-changing.
“In the United States, we incarcerate about 2.5 million people- that directly affects 10 million children. In the U.S., we also surrender millions of dogs all over the country, resulting in more than a million euthanizations”, reflects Zach, “Pawsitive Change is providing hope and saving lives- giving both pets and people a second chance”.
Zach recognizes the value of being, possibly, one of the only folks and organizations that believe in those behind prison walls: that is why the goal is to bring Marley’s Mutts and Pawsitive Change to every prison in America: “We can change the trajectory and future
of thousands and thousands of lives for extraordinarily little investment- pennies on the dollar compared to what our nation spends on incarceration”.
As of 2022, Pawsitive Change has graduated over 350 men with 200 dogs. Over 40 of those students have since been released from prison, and none of them have gone back.
For more information about the Pawsitive Change program, go here: https://www.marleysmutts.org/pawsitivechange
Here is information on donating: https://www.marleysmutts.org/homeontherange/
And, if you’re interested in adopting a dog, check out this: https://www.instagram.com/marleysmutts/
Locally, Orange County is home to Cell Dogs, a 501c3 based in the heart of SoCal.
Cell Dogs harnesses the power of the human-animal bond and transforms lives by setting a new course for shelter dogs and incarcerated individuals that are housed in Theo Lacy. By providing second chances, this necessary organization is on a mission to make a lasting difference in our underserved communities. For more information on Cell Dogs, how you can get involved, or even, adopt a pup, check out their site.
Cell Dogs: https://www.celldogs.org/