On any given day, Joan Dalton walks with a group along the razor-topped perimeter of MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon. She’s watchful for opportunities to praise and encourage her dog walkers — a select group of the facility’s incarcerated youth — and the dogs once considered unadoptable.
This is Project POOCH, which Dalton founded while working as vice-principal at MacLaren’s Lord High School. She saw parallels between abandoned dogs and the youth at her school. “Because of how they’ve been treated and the environment in which they were raised, they’ve acted out,” she says. “They are considered dangerous, so they’re locked up.”
Dalton saw hopelessness in too many students. Many had given up on school, most lacked skills or training, and their chances of finding meaningful employment upon returning to the community were low. Knowing the strength of the human/animal bond from research and personal experience, she believed the dogs and youth could help each other.
Her love for animals began when her childhood best friend was a dog named Bugsy. He waited with Dalton for the school bus every morning and met her again each afternoon. They were inseparable.
One traumatic day, Bugsy caught one of the family’s chickens. Her parents took Joan and her siblings inside. Her mother pulled the blinds while her father got his shotgun. Joan knew exactly what this meant. Neither parent spoke a word.
The experience stayed with Dalton. She knew Bugsy wasn’t bad; he just hadn’t known better and had been left unsupervised.
Decades later, pondering ways to help her students earn high school credits, Dalton thought of Bugsy, and the many shelter dogs rejected for their behavior. She formed a vision to rehabilitate such dogs while teaching her students communication, job, and behavioral science skills.
She’d eventually leave her position as vice-principal and take a significant pay cut to head up POOCH, working grueling hours, even selling her house to cover living expenses.
Beginning with one youth and one dog, Project POOCH grew every year, as youth learned patience and accountability, developed caring bonds with dogs, and celebrated as previously unadoptable dogs went to permanent, loving homes. Later, youth would learn additional skills by helping remodel campus areas into a kennel and study area and creating an agility course and a meditation garden.
Over the years Dalton has worked to add more components to the program, including expanding kennels to teach construction skills and bringing in trainers, groomers, and veterinarians to deepen the youths’ knowledge. She brought in K9 officers to show youth different careers working with dogs .
The program became a model far and wide. POOCH graduates have a low recidivism rate, and Dalton has helped participants find employment upon release from MacLaren, realizing one of the program’s early goals. A number of youth have gone on to college with the help of scholarships from donors. The barrier-busting program has been featured in magazines, newscasts, and on Animal Planet. A Japanese film about POOCH airs regularly in Japan.
Now planning to hand over management to a new director, Dalton will be taking her work home with her. [NH1] She’s outfitted her home to provide sanctuary to older POOCH dogs who have never been adopted. Living among retired canines, she will write her memoir about POOCH.
“Hopefully it will raise awareness that everyone deserves a second chance. Whether it is an animal with behavior problems or a person who has been incarcerated, love and hard work can turn a life around,” she says.
POOCH dog Felix: Winning
Eight years ago, Oregon State Penitentiary Assistant Superintendent Michael Yoder called Joan Dalton with an unusual request: he needed a dog to keep geese off the prison recreation yard.
Dalton knew just the dog — Felix. His parentage was a mystery, “So the POOCH youth compared him to photos in dog books and decided he most resembled a Munsterlander.” Experts describe the breed as affectionate, intelligent, and natural hunters that thrive on exercise.
Felix fit the description. Immediately, Dalton says, “he went wild chasing geese. Felix was a bit of a showoff as he demonstrated his skill and intelligence.”
Soon Felix began visiting the infirmary, improving inmate and staff morale. Inmate Michael McNeely, at OSP since Felix arrived, says, “Everybody loves Felix. He’s so smart; he can tell if somebody needs loving. Some people in here never get a visitor, and Felix makes a big difference to them.”
Inmate Steve Johnson handles Felix’s daily care, but others are quick to help. His popularity even pays his expenses: inmates and visitors line up to pay $1 for a photo with him.
And while the geese keep Felix challenged, so far, Felix is winning.
Nancy Hill is a photojournalist currently living in Portland, although she anticipates moving to Salem very soon. As a child, Nancy's family always had a collie. She's continued the love of the breed all her life and now has a collie named Casper.