Carson, a 4-year-old poodle mix was housed with and trained by an inmate at the James A. Musick Facility under the COLLAR (Canines Offering Life Lessons And Rewards) program.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC
The inmate kneeled down to nuzzle the 9-month-old chocolate lab for the last time.
The labrador, Blossom, had been dumped at the Orange County Animal Care Center as a stray puppy.
Considered to have behavioral issues, the sweet and energetic purebred was at risk for being euthanized.
Blossom was in need of a second chance — something Genevieve Sinkwich, an inmate at James A. Musick Jail, very much relates to.
Sinkwich, 34, pleaded guilty to felony drunken driving in January and was sentenced to eight months at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Irvine jail, which is commonly referred to as “the Farm.”
Sinkwich was struggling to find something positive to latch onto as she served her sentence. Even in dormitory-style barracks shared with 29 other women, it was easy to feel alone.
Then she learned about the Canines Offering Life Lessons and Rewards (COLLAR) program.
The program, which is a partnership with the OCSD and the nonprofit Pathways to Hope’s Cell Dogs Training Program, allows inmates with good behavior to participate in a nearly four-month workshop to train dogs deemed un-adoptable and help find them forever homes.
Cell Dogs started more than a decade ago in the county’s juvenile detention facility before being introduced in February 2013 to the Farm. There currently are four Cell Dogs programs in various state and county correctional facilities.
Inmates first take about five weeks of classroom instruction to learn how to properly work with canines, then are paired with a four-legged partner for an eight-week training program.
The benefits are two-fold: Inmates learn a marketable skill and also reap the therapeutic benefits of having a dog around.
For Sinkwich, connecting with Blossom helped her during a tumultuous stay. Since she’s been incarcerated, her mother fell ill with liver disease and her best friend died in a diving accident.
“She really has been a light in a dark place,” Sinkwich said, ruffling the hair on the back of Blossom’s neck. “She helps create a more positive environment for all the girls. There’s something to look forward to every day.
“It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.”
There are many aspects of the COLLAR program that are hard, and it’s meant to be that way.
The work that goes into training each of the dogs instills qualities that benefit the women on the outside including responsibility, commitment and diligence.
“A lot of the time, the women who come in this program are defiant at first,” said Janette Thomas, executive director of Cell Dogs. “They struggle with self-esteem and there are so many women who come here broken.
“They suffer from a lack of structure, consistency and love.”
When the dogs are in jail, there is plenty of love to go around, and everyone seems to benefit from the furry short-timers.
“When you walk into the barracks with a dog there is an immediate release of tension,” said Sgt. Donna Mereness, who adopted her dog, Bear, from a previous COLLAR class. “The inmates are happier and we’re happier.”
The COLLAR dogs live with the inmates and train throughout the week.
They work on tricks including sit, stay and roll over, along with some skills that serve as the foundation for therapy dog training.
As the program progresses, Thomas works on finding homes for each of the dogs — a task that has been fairly easy thanks to the popularity of the program.
So far, 32 dogs have been placed in permanent homes.
Several OCSD employees have adopted dogs and other families were found by word of mouth.
The more difficult part is finding dogs fit for the program.
Thomas, dubbed the dog whisperer by those who know her, sometimes camps out at the animal shelter to find the perfect students.
“Blossom was dropped off as a stray and at the shelter it’s first-come, first-served so I stayed and slept in a chair all night to get her,” Thomas said. “She was absolutely a wild child, but she was still a puppy.”
Thomas saw something in Blossom she knew was special and was confident she could be tamed with a lot of patience and love.
Carson, she said, was an immediate favorite for his genteel nature. He just needed to be cleaned up a bit and given the chance to learn.
“He’s just lap candy,” Thomas said.
In a showcase of their newly acquired skills, Blossom and Carson graduated June 16 from COLLAR.
Blossom will go on to advanced training, where she will be certified as a therapy dog before joining a young girl with muscular dystrophy.
She is the third COLLAR dog to go on and become a therapy dog, Thomas said.
After the graduation, Carson was able to join his new family , Tustin resident Bonnie Gillman, 70, and her daughter, Margo.
“It’s a rescue for a rescue for a rescue,” Gillman said. “We’ve been dreaming about him. We’ve been so excited to bring him into our home.”
As the inmates shared a lunch of pizza and turkey wraps with the Cell Dogs team and OCSD employees, Thomas left the women with simple advice: “Don’t come back. This program is a gift. We want you to get out and stay out.”
Sinkwich, who will be released in August, plans to take Thomas’ words to heart and said she has her bond with Blossom to thank for inspiring her to make a change.
“I’m not coming back. I’m never doing that again,” she said of drinking and driving. “This program has been a privilege, and I’m going to remember this experience for the rest of my life. I put a lot of love in.
“Love hard and let go.”