Pixie’s Pen Pals: Rescue Dogs who Train with Inmates

Best Bully Sticks is proud that our local Richmond, VA is home to several great rescue dog organizations. One of these organizations is FETCH a Cure, who we interviewed 2 years ago. Their mission is to help people pay for cancer treatment for their pets. Within FETCH a Cure, there is Pixie’s Pen Pals, a program that takes dogs from local shelters (about 40-50 dogs per year), places them in correctional centers where they are trained and socialized by inmates, and then adopts them out all over the East Coast.

We spoke with Sarah Hornberger, Pen Pals Coordinator, about the pawesome work that they do!


When was Pixie’s Pen Pals started?

Pixie’s Pen Pals was started in 2001 by Save Our Shelters (SOS), and FETCH a Cure began running the program in 2010 after Save Our Shelters dissolved. It’s one of the longest running prison dog programs in the country.

What led FETCH to take on this program?

We wanted it to continue after SOS closed–it’s such an amazing program that benefits everyone involved. Although FETCH a Cure was started to help those whose dogs are undergoing cancer treatment, we are also focused on education. It seemed natural for us to extend that love for education to the Pen Pals program–we educate offenders who then educate dogs, creating a wonderful, rehabilitative environment and promoting responsible pet ownership. The opportunity to continue this amazing work is a privilege that was too good to pass up.

How many dogs have been trained and rescued thanks to Pixie’s Pen Pals?

Since we took over the program, we have to estimate, but our lower figure is probably 1,100 dogs.

PicMonkey Collage_96

What do the inmates involved in the program think of their experience?

They really enjoy the time they have with our rescue dogs. Here is the story of one inmate who trained almost 40 dogs in his 8+ years with the program.

What is your favorite success story of a dog who was part of the program?

Sooner with SantaThere are so many!!! I would say that Sooner’s adoption is the closest to my heart. Sooner is a wonderful, older dog who has simple needs: to be snuggled and allowed to sleep all day. For some reason, he kept getting overlooked at events and on our website. I fostered him and was so enamored of him– polite, well-trained, sweet and just a little sassy, good with the cats, played and snuggled with my dog, and loved to just be near me. I wouldn’t have minded if Sooner was my foster dog forever!
Sooner really enjoys being with people. He was with Pen Pals for almost two years before he was adopted by someone who finally recognized how amazing he is. Initially, his adopter had to withdraw her application due to a family emergency. However, months later, when she saw that he was still available, she reached out. She and Sooner are true soulmates, and I am so happy to have brought them together.

What are your goals for 2016 and beyond?

Obviously, our main goal is to match up more dogs with loving families every year–every time someone is adopted, we can save another dog’s life by bringing them into the program. One thing that we would like to do is build a bigger foster care base. Foster care is very in need–medical, behavioral, or even just to create a space in the facility for another dog. Our foster parents are amazing, and we always need more. Some dogs come into town for specialty vet care, some dogs come into town to hopefully be adopted at events, and now we are utilizing foster care to help dogs better transition into homes. Most of our dogs are dog-friendly and some are cat-friendly. We work as hard to match up the foster family with the right foster dog as we do to find the right forever family for a dog. Foster parents provide services that are invaluable to our dogs–even just a photo snapped at a foster’s house can catch someone’s eye and help a dog find their forever home.

Beyond this, we strive to continue our rehabilitation through education. This program is not only about the dogs who are adopted by loving families, but about the inmate handlers who learn invaluable skills, such as communication, patience, and how to work as a team. Our program works because everyone benefits: the shelters who are able to bring in a new dogs after we take one into our program; the inmate handlers who gain experience they can use upon release; the dogs who may have once been less adoptable but have been transformed by our program; and the families who adopt a well-trained dog and are given the tools to continue their dogs’ education.

How do the dogs benefit from bully stick chews?

Bully sticks are invaluable in our program because the dogs have a lot of down time and would love to chew. Since I have been in this position, we have moved away from rawhide to the safer alternative of bully sticks. (Best Bully Sticks recently donated a bag for the dogs to enjoy!)

An offender handler at Buckingham Correctional Center said, “The dogs really love them and respond to their training when they have a Bully Stick as a treat. I trained a dog to be quieter in public areas when she saw the Bully Stick – she wouldn’t bark as long as she saw one in anticipation of getting a Bully Stick as a reward. That’s how much she loved it.”

Can you share background on a dog currently in the program who needs a forever home?

Quen is a snuggly, well-behaved boy who LOVES bully sticks and has a real need to chew. Quen is a dog who needs to be the only pet in the household. He really enjoys playing fetch, and as you can see from his photo, he passed the Kibble Challenge!

quen pittie smile
Quen Kibble Challenge








Thank you to Sarah at Pixie’s Pen Pals for telling us about their great rehabilitation and rescue program! If you’d like to learn more about Pixie’s Pen Pals, check them out at fetchacure.org/pen-pals!

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