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Suffolk reviewing 'pet therapy for prisoners' idea

Lynne Schoepfer, left, and Dori Scofield of the

Lynne Schoepfer, left, and Dori Scofield of the Save-A Pet Adoption Center in Port Jefferson Station are shown with 3-month-old Yellow Labrador siblings, Morgan, left, and Emmet. (Sept. 17, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Suffolk sheriff's department is reviewing a proposal to create a dog therapy program that would allow low-risk inmates in the county jail in Riverhead to train and care for orphaned pets.

Dori Scofield, founder and president of the nonprofit Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center in Port Jefferson Station, has proposed the program to sheriff's and county officials.

It would allow inmates at the Riverhead facility to bond with the adoptable dogs and learn to care for and train them, while helping familiarize the dogs with people and new surroundings.

"I really feel that the inmates need a positive outlet and source. It will instill hope. It's a win-win situation," said Scofield, who wants to start the training immediately.

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah S. Anker (D-Mount Sinai), whose district includes parts of Brookhaven, said she supports Scofield. "It's a program that she would like to see instituted in the county, and I'm going to help her," Anker said in an interview. "It's pet therapy for prisoners."

Anker and Scofield plan to meet with officials from the sheriff's department on Oct. 9 to discuss details of the program, including liability issues such as if a dog bites an inmate. Costs for the program have not been determined, but Scofield, whose 13-year-old rescue relies on donations, says she would do the jail program for free.

Officials from the Suffolk County sheriff's office say the plan shows promise.

"We are interested in having the best programs possible for inmates; the goal is for when people leave, not to have them come back," Michael Sharkey, chief of staff for Sheriff Vincent F. DeMarco, said Monday. "The sheriff's office would consider any program beneficial to the inmate population."

Caring for dogs can be therapeutic for inmates by creating a sense of responsibility, enhancing social skills, increasing a feeling of purpose and even lowering blood pressure, Scofield said.

The program also would teach skills that inmates could use in an animal welfare career, such as pet sitting, dog training or as a veterinary assistant or animal behaviorist, officials said. In addition to training the dogs in obedience, inmates would be taught canine hygiene, such as nail clipping, grooming and veterinary care, officials said.

Prisoners would be awarded an achievement certificate at the program's end, officials said.

If the sheriff's office approves the eight-week program, six dogs and two trainers from Save-A-Pet, would be paired with six county inmates twice a week for one hour.

"We want the inmates to bond with the dogs," said Scofield, former supervisor of the Brookhaven Animal Shelter.

All of the dogs -- which would come from Save-A-Pet -- would undergo temperament testing and be vaccinated, spayed or neutered before entering the program, officials said.

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