Graduation season in Maine this year included a special event that was somewhat modest, but significant. And not without ceremony.

On May 23 at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, processional music was played, balloons and a Congratulations Class of 2017 banner were displayed, a television station and several reporters were among those in attendance, and Wiscasset Police Chief Jeffrey Lange said a few words. And Melvin, a 4-year-old terrier, and Jake, a 2-year-old Border Collie mix, became the first graduates of Beyond the Bars, a new program created and operated by the Coastal Humane Society and the Lincoln County Animal Shelter. (The two organizations are merged.)

Before receiving their diplomas, Jake and Melvin performed a number of tricks they had been taught by Dustin Campbell and Norman Palmer, both inmates. “You wouldn’t believe how focused and perfectly trained the dogs were, and these were not all simple tricks,” remembers Jane Siviski, the shelter’s marketing manager.

“The dogs are shelter dogs – needy, and not bad dogs, but they need more basic manners and training to become more appealing to people and to find a permanent home, which is always the goal,” said Dr. Mandie Wehr, who is the organization’s full-time veterinarian and since 2011 has been its Director of Shelter Operations.

Wehr, and dog program coordinator Mike Gould, helped found Beyond the Bars, “which basically selects promising shelter dogs and houses them in prison for eight to 12 weeks of training. (Non-violent) inmates volunteer, and if they are chosen, they are assigned to animals as handlers, and receive their training from Mike. And the dogs learn living skills from people who have been exposed to a lot of different things,” Wehr said.

Nationally recognized experts from Precision Behavior Animal Consulting designed a training plan for shelter staff to follow, and those methods were taught to inmates, Siviski said, with Gould making weekly visits to Two Bridges for further instruction and to check on progress.

“Dustin and Norman dedicated themselves to the program and have done amazing work with the dogs,” Gould said. “They took on a number of extra responsibilities to help the dogs as much as possible. Early wake-ups, medication administration, play, and long walks and training sessions.”

The program proved highly beneficial to inmates, much like Embrace A Vet, in which the organization helps veterans with pet adoption. The shelter’s foster care program has at least 100 critters placed at any one time. Thanks in part to these and other efforts, and because “Maine is so animal-friendly, with some of the best animal protection laws in the country, and people in general more respectful of animals,” in Wehr’s words, the shelter’s Live Release Rate is an impressive and encouraging 98 percent for dogs, 96-97 percent for cats (compared to c. 50 percent nationwide for the latter).

This, for a low-budget, 501(c)(3) organization that serves more than 40 towns and cares for more than 3,500 animals every year.

Since graduation day, Jake and Melvin have moved on to join families; in fact, Jake was adopted by Campbell. In another Beyond the Bars success story, a 70-pound Plott Hound called Zion and a young lab/retriever named Candy, both after spending an entire year in the shelter, are going to graduate on Wednesday.

“Zion had been adopted twice and returned to the shelter, but we’re pretty confident now that it won’t be happening again,” Siviski said.

 

For more information on Beyond The Bars and the shelter organization, please visit www.coastalhumanesociety.org.

These monthly profiles are brought to you by Lee Auto Malls. The Lee family is committed to supporting local organizations that work to sustain Maine communities.