A 5-year-old Weimaraner and its 3-year-old half-Lab pup had sores on their bodies when a man called the Lucky Dog Program in Hutchinson last month.
The man said he couldn’t afford their care, and he wanted someone to come pick them up.
Ruth Ann Spitzer, president of Friends of Animals in Need Inc., which supports the Lucky Dog Program, said the dogs were sleeping in a shallow dirt hole without shelter when they were rescued.
They were 20 pounds underweight, their protruding ribs evident.
Fast-forward a month later, after being spayed, fed and vaccinated, Weimaraner Abby and her grown pup Briley are on the road to recovery. This week they nuzzled up to Spitzer and Sondra Wood, owner of the House of Canine in Hutchinson, which serves as foster care for dogs in the Lucky Dog Program.
Abby and Briley are among the nearly 500 dogs that have been rescued or saved from euthanasia since the inception of the Lucky Dog Program 10 years ago.
With about $2,300 in donations from friends who came to her birthday party, Spitzer and Vicky Hollowell launched the Lucky Dog Program with the blessing of Louis Bruce, former warden of the Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
“Bruce wanted to establish the program to save Reno County dogs” from euthanasia, Spitzer said. “We figured we’d have the program for about two or three years, and then it’d fall apart – we never dreamed it would be 10 years.”
The dogs in the program – most are rescued from animal shelters – are taught basic commands, house trained and are prepared for adoption by inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. Each dog is cared for by four inmate trainers. Inmates who participate must adhere to strict criteria and maintain a clear disciplinary record.
The Lucky Dog Program, based at the prison’s East Unit, started with about three dogs and 12 inmates. The program has grown to include 14 dogs and more than 40 inmates, including volunteers and handlers.
The program takes in an average of 50 dogs each year, or about one dog per week, Spitzer estimated.
Chandy Wylie, activities specialist who coordinates the Lucky Dog Program at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility, said the program also uses dog beds made by inmates from recycled mattress materials.
“It changes their lives forever,” Spitzer said of the inmates who care for Lucky Dogs, adding that she has seen incredible behavioral changes among men she thought were hardened criminals. “It’s the first time they’ve accomplished something with love and care, and they love (the dogs) unconditionally.
“It’s hard on the dog and it’s hard on the inmate when (the dog) is eventually adopted, but I’ve seen 180-degree changes in inmates after they’ve entered the program.”
Spitzer, along with her daughter, Sandra Bell, Hollowell and Connie Albright, are the four licensed volunteers working in the Lucky Dog Program. They’re “on call 24/7,” picking up dogs from shelters, taking dogs to vet appointments and visiting handlers at the prison. Spitzer said five area veterinarians offer services at a discount, and the program gets one dog spayed or neutered for free each month.
The Lucky Dog Program operates on a “shoestring budget” of about $14,000, but that includes about $10,000 in vet bills, Spitzer said. The four women often pay out-of-pocket, she said.
Spitzer said the program could use one more “foster care” site in Hutchinson to house dogs before they are matched with inmate handlers.
“We struggle, but we’ve stayed alive for 10 years,” she said of the Lucky Dog Program. “That’s how we exist – on a wing and a prayer.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a really rewarding program for all of us.”