Underdogs find futures through Project POOCH

Marion County

Incarcerated youth have been training shelter dogs with Project POOCH since 1993

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Some incarcerated youth in Oregon are giving unwanted dogs a second chance — and changing their own futures in the process.

Project POOCH is a nonprofit that pairs shelter dogs labeled “unadoptable” with youth incarcerated at Mac Laren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.

The youth at the facility train the dogs, groom them and get them ready to find their forever homes.

Project POOCH Program Director Rena Mahajan and her dog Spike, Aug. 28, 2019. (KOIN)

Rena Mahajan, the program director at Project POOCH, told KOIN 6 News the organization essentially offers fulltime jobs to between 8 to 10 incarcerated minors at a time.

Those going through the program work 5 days a week. They start each day with a visit to the kennel located onsite at the correctional facility. Two kennel managers supervise their work.

“They get there in the morning and take care of the dogs, feed them, take them on their walk and then the training starts,” Mahajan said.

Another second chance

Project POOCH offers something special to dogs that have already been given a second chance at other shelters but struck out. Dogs come to the organization from shelters that are overcrowded — others are hand-picked by shelter staff who think they’d be a good fit for the program.

“Since some of the youth in our program are kind of under-dogs as well, we tend to take dogs that are a little older or dogs that just have something to work on,” said Mahajan, smiling fondly.

The program works with all kinds of canine personalities — from avid diggers to escape artists. It also doesn’t discriminate against breeds, taking in everything from stigmatized breeds to working dog breeds that just need jobs. Mahajan said Project POOCH even has an agility center onsite.

“We like to get a variety of breeds as well just to teach the youth how to work with all dogs,” she said. “That way when they reenter society, it will really help them if they want to get a job working with dogs.”

In working with dogs once labeled “unadoptable,” Project POOCH members are building foundations for their own futures.

“When a lot of the youth reenter society, they not only have more compassion for life but they also might become vet techs or groomers or trainers.”

Project POOCH Program Director Rena Mahajan

Already this year, several young people in the program have completed their canine specialist certification. They’ve learned valuable skills that look good on a resume, like animal CPR, health protocols and grooming.

“These skills can really be applied to the real world and we see that when a lot of the youth reenter society, they not only have more compassion for life but they also might become vet techs or groomers or trainers,” said Mahajan.

To be eligible for Project POOCH, a person must be in good standing at Mac Laren Correctional Facility and they can’t have a history of animal abuse.

Other than that, it’s just your standard interview process like any normal job.

“We try to involve the current youth that are in the program as much as we can,” Mahajan said of the interview process. “That way, they learn that their opinions are valued and they learn how to interview people, which also comes in handy.”

A new best friend

The program is near and dear to Mahajan’s own heart as it introduced her to one of her furry companions: Spike, a little black dog reminiscent of Toto from the “Wizard of Oz.”

Spike had graduated Project POOCH and was up for adoption when Mahajan decided to take him to a pet store for an outreach event. She wanted him to get more exposure in the real world and have a break from life in the kennel — but, ultimately, Mahajan wanted Spike to find his family.

Project POOCH graduate “Spike,” who is now owned by program director Rena Mahajan, when he first came to the kennel (left) and after he completed the program (right). (Courtesy of Rena Mahajan)

At the end of the day, Mahajan took Spike home with her because the kennel was closed for the night. She was worried about fostering the little dog overnight because her other dog, Bowser, can be sensitive around other dogs.

But Bowser and Spike hit it off.

Project POOCH graduate “Spike” with his buddy “Bowser.” (Courtesy of Rena Mahajan)

“They both just got along so well and played and cuddled all night and I knew that Spike would be staying,” Mahajan said as she bent to pat the shy terrier.

“I’m really thankful for the youth for training my new best friend. He’s an amazing dog — so well behaved, such a sweet guy.”

Aside from meeting Spike, Project POOCH has given Mahajan a job she’s passionate about.

She said the program is always looking for new volunteers to help at the outreach office or with various events. There are also some opportunities to work directly with the youth and dogs at the kennel.

Project POOCH’s next outreach event will be a dog wash at Stickmen Brewing in Tualatin on September 14.

From noon to 4 p.m., people can bring their dogs to the brewery’s patio and get their dogs washed for $10. The proceeds, including a portion of beer and food proceeds collected during the event, will go directly to Project POOCH.

“We’ll give your dog lots of treats,” Mahajan promises. “There’s gonna be raffles and games and, of course, opportunities to pet cute dogs and ask questions about Project POOCH.”

Ready to meet your new best friend?

Those interested in adopting a Project POOCH dog can click here to see pictures and read about each furry companion ready to find a forever home.

Visits to the kennel are by appointment only. To set up a visit, please call 503.981.2570.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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