RCACP receives grant for ‘In Custody K9 Training’ program

): Angels of Assisi Trainer Bobbie Wiggins works with a shelter dog and inmate in the “In Custody K9 Training Program” located at the Regional Center for Animal Care and Protection. This new program is funded by a grant from Petsmart Charities.
Trainer Ann-Marie Transue works with Ava, an American Pitbull Terrier puppy, and her inmate trainer to teach skills that will help dogs become more “adoptable” to their potential forever families and provide skills to the inmate as well.

The Regional Center for Animal Care and Protection has received a grant for $33,600 from Petsmart Charities to “bring the healing power of pets to the Roanoke Valley” through the “In Custody K9 Training” program.

RCACP identifies available dogs that need assistance with learning acceptable behavior skills and matches them with an inmate trusty through the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office to learn those skills in the shelter environment.

The inmates, with the help of trainers provided by Angels of Assisi, work with the dogs four days a week at the shelter to learn and master the new skills.

Certified Trainer Bobbie Wiggins said the training method is based on the “Train to Adopt” program created by Sue Sternberg. Techniques are reward-based, focusing on positive reinforcement.

“The ‘Train to Adopt’ program was created by Sternburg to help maintain a good quality of life for dogs while at the shelter and teach the dog how to learn some basic manners and self-control, in hopes that this will help them get adopted and have a successful home life,” Wiggins said.

Trainer Ann-Marie Transue says the program teaches dogs basic manners– the basics of what you teach any dog to make it adoptable. “The dogs learn sit, stay, wait, down, wait for the food bowl, wait to go out the door, drop it, leave it, and leash manners— all things people want in a dog when they get it home.”

A live demonstration by the Wiggins and Transue, inmate trainers, and the dogs was presented at RCACP on February 27.

“We are very excited to begin our new K‐9 training program for both the dogs and the inmate trainers,” said Michael Warner, Interim Executive Director of RCACP.  “The goal is to present an animal that will be an acceptable companion to the public with basic obedience already in place and to reduce adoption returns.

“In addition, the program is an opportunity for the trusties to learn new job skills and the soft skills that are needed to succeed after incarceration,” Warner said. “By participating in this program, the trusties receive positive validation from the dogs and trainers and provide a lasting service to the community.”

A bonus is that pet adopters will be able to see what a difference professional obedience training makes in a dog.

“This is a true win‐win situation for all involved and we very thankful that PetSmart Charities supported our vision,” said Warner.

“We know the transformative power of pets and are committed to supporting programs that bring people and pets together,” said Sima Thakkar, regional relationship manager at PetSmart Charities. “Thanks to our generous donors across the nation, we are thrilled to support RCACP and this unique initiative that promotes the human-animal bond.”

There are currently two inmates and about six dogs in the program.

“It’s a wonderful program for inmates and the dogs,” said Transue. “The inmates get to see incredible behavioral changes and dogs getting adopted as a result of their efforts. It is very reinforcing to them and boosts their confidence. It’s also a confidence booster for the dogs.”

Transue said they have had very good success with dogs getting adopted through the program so far.

“I am thrilled to be a part of the program,” Transue said. “I jumped at the opportunity to be involved.”

In addition to her myriad of dog training activities, Transue is the owner of Country Air Vacation Kennels.

Angels of Assisi Executive Director Lisa O’Neill says training shelter dogs “takes lots of patience and TLC.” She says the program was the vision of Warner and a “dream come true.” She and Warner coordinate the partnership program which involves Angels of Assisi, the RCACP, and the Sheriff’s Department.

O’Neill sees three benefits:

  • The dogs get socialized and get to be with people.
  • The inmates get to experience the unconditional love of a dog and gain a feeling of self-worth, with both “becoming the best they can be.”
  • The community benefits when dogs are trained in adoptable skills.

There are currently four Roanoke County inmates working at RCACP. Two are in an earlier-established program, cleaning and doing maintenance at the facility. With the new grant, two more inmates are being “trained as trainers.”

Transue says that the inmates chose the “In Custody K9 Training” name for the program.

“They can totally relate to the dogs since they are all basically in custody,” said Transue. “Their own situation helps them understand the dogs and bond with them.”

Roanoke County Sheriff Eric Orange says the new program is a “great opportunity for staff and inmates.”

“The program has fantastic benefits for all partners— Angels of Assisi is able to decrease their numbers when dogs are adopted; inmates can learn job skills while they are incarcerated and when they return to life as usual have the opportunity to find gainful employment,” Orange said. “The program is therapeutic for both animals and inmates. The dogs get to have interactions with humans and the inmates enjoy the opportunity to get out and contribute to a worthy endeavor.”

Wiggins says that they are seeing results from the new program already.

“We have seen dogs with little or no training, or manners, learn to bond with us, learn to be calmer, more relaxed dogs who show self-control even in exciting situations,” she said. “When potential adopters see that the dogs are not jumping all over them or mouthing them, but behaving calmly, it lets them see how smart that dog is and makes them want to adopt them. Then at home they are happy to learn more and continue to work with them.”

The “In Custody K9 Training Program” is one of several Inmate Work Force programs offered by the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office. It provides two work crews in partnership with Roanoke County Parks, Recreation, and Tourism who are involved in mowing services and landscaping during prime mowing season and other duties in the off-season, such as painting snow removal, and general clean-up of county properties.

“Since taking office, I have increased the inmate outside workforce by two additional crews as well as the use of week-enders for trash collection in certain areas of the county to include Vinton,” Orange said. “The two crews that currently serve the RCACP have been created since I took office in 2016. One crew does clean up and basic maintenance at the shelter, while the other provides training services. We also have individuals that are serving weekend sentences who assist with roadway beautification and trash collection throughout the county and Vinton. We also have a number of inside trusties that provide maintenance, laundry, cleaning and kitchen services.”

The Sheriff’s Department says that “the Inmate Work Force is comprised of highly screened and selected inmates. They must meet strict criteria to be considered for this program. Sentenced inmates that are guilty of misdemeanors and are permitted to receive judicial good time from the sentencing court are considered optimal candidates for the program. By working on this program and receiving judicial good time, an inmate has the opportunity to dispose of some of his sentence, thus saving Roanoke County the costs of housing and feeding that inmate, and providing a labor force at no cost to the county.”


The Work Force inmates are supervised by a deputy sheriff, who is specifically assigned to manage the crew.

RCACP serves the City of Roanoke, the Counties of Botetourt and Roanoke, and the Town of Vinton.


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