Muddy Paws

posted January 15th, 2011 by
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By PAT ATKINSON

Dogs Transform Inmates’ Lives,Shed Their Shaggy Pasts

The fur flies at Muddy Paws Grooming, but what’s really going on is much more than shaving shaggy dogs. Beneath the piles of clips and snips is a potential future of second chances for homeless dogs and women prison inmates, a working partnership. “It’s all about helping change people’s lives,” says Christy VanCleave, Muddy Paws coowner with Adrieanna Ralph. Both are longtime pet lovers and veteran dog groomers. And, both are former inmates, giving Christy and Adrieanna insightful understanding of the special needs of women in prison and teens who have aged out of state foster care, all with limited options for earning a living.

Christy has been in and out of jail five times, mostly in California, doing time for drug charges including drug possession, selling, and possessing drug paraphernalia. Adrieanna’s three times in Oklahoma’s corrections system were also drug-related. She finished the last year and a half of her recent four-year sentence at Turley Residential Center in north Tulsa.

About one year ago, after meeting in a substance abuse recovery program, “Celebrate Recovery” based at Southern Hills Baptist Church, the two opened Muddy Paws at 56th Place and Lewis Avenue, offering dog grooming, boarding, doggie day care, and obedience classes.
They also founded a non-profit organization, Pets Helping People, with the mission of grooming women and teens for careers in dog grooming. The church owns the property and is making it available for the training program.

“The women can support themselves and their families with a career as dog groomers,” Christy says. “It is a part of breaking the cycle (of crime)-trying to prevent some of them from going to prison in the first place or, for others, going back again.” Tulsans take their privately-owned lucky dogs to Muddy Paws for grooming and doggie day care, pampering, primping, baths and fluffing, doggie day out playtime and home-away-from-home boarding. This is the primary income that supports the non-profit vocational education program, Pets Helping People (PHP).

And there are always several rescue organization’s dogs lined up for makeovers before going out on the town to meet potential new families at adoption events. PHP has relationships for grooming rescue dogs with Tulsa Animal Welfare, the Sand Springs municipal shelter, Oklahoma Westie Rescue, Schnauzer Rescue of Tulsa, and Pet Adoption League (PAL).

At first glance, Muddy Paws looks simply like a busy center filled with dogs getting the works at the spa from the pet-loving staff.
But Christy and Adrieanna work with 4-5 students daily teaching the art and handling of grooming, including bathing, drying, shaving, snipping, clipping and more. And, student inmates and teens learn obedience training and doggie day care and boarding business operations.

PHP is a four-month training program. Most of the inmates in the program are living at the Turley corrections center, completing their sentences. The teens in training are receiving services, including housing, from Youth Services of Tulsa. Other social services involved with PHP are halfway houses Lindsey House and Hope House, and Women in Recovery, a program offering alternatives to prison.

Participating inmates, all non-violent offenders, must commit to on-going attendance in a substance abuse recovery 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Celebrate Recovery. They are screened for other disqualifying factors such as taking psychiatric medications or former complaints of animal abuse.
To date, 13 inmates have been trained and seven are working as groomers. “There’s a high demand for groomers, so it’s a good career to learn,” Christy says. “We’re starting to get calls from retail stores looking for trained people to hire.” PHP’s inmate training program is the only one of its kind in Oklahoma and the five staff members of Muddy Paws/PHP are all former offenders committed to passing on their experience and expertise.

And, while the students are learning a new trade with each snip and clip, many of the rescued dogs are beginning their own rags to riches Cinderella stories. Their makeovers literally scrub and shear away the outward signs of hard living on the streets, abuse and neglect. Tails begin wagging and when the primping is finished, the doggie smiles shine.

You could say that the dogs are teaching the people about opportunities for new life while the people are preparing the dogs for second chances, too. It’s a paw-in-hand relationship.
“The dogs don’t care that we’ve been bad in the past,” Christy says. “We’re here doing what we love to do and helping change people’s lives.” And offer new life to adoptable dogs, too.

Professional journalist Pat Atkinson is also associated with area rescue and spay/ neuter programs.

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