The shelter manager told Isaac De La Rosa that she couldn’t hire him because he had no experience. “Leave me with a dog, and come back in an hour,” De La Rosa told her. “If it’s not doing better by the time you get back, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again.” The shelter manager handed him the leash to the meanest, dirtiest dog of the bunch, and when she returned from lunch, she was surprised to see the dog docile and relaxed, and she gave De La Rosa the job on the spot.
It was De La Rosa’s first job as a free man, the first step to building a new life after nearly 25 years in prison. Once an incarcerated individual serving a life sentence, De La Rosa became a confident, practiced dog trainer with the help of Pawsitive Change, a progressive non-profit program that pairs high-risk shelter dogs with inmates in the California state prison system and provides prisoners with the tools to more easily access employment upon release. Employment is a critical component of preventing recidivism, yet the American Civil Liberties Union reports that nearly 75 percent of those exiting prison remain unemployed a year after release. About 10 dogs are matched up with 25 to 30 inmates — mostly long-term violent offenders — who, through extensive training and practice, are able to reshape their own negative behaviors.
“We wanted to share reciprocal love with the people who need it most,” says Pawsitive Change founder and public relations director Zach Skow. “This is a mutual rescue scenario, helping create a pathway to change and give love to people who haven’t felt it in a long time. Exposure to it makes people fundamentally different.” Skow started Pawsitive Change in 2015 as an offshoot of his organization, Marley’s Mutts, which rescues shelter dogs in Kern County, California, that would otherwise face euthanasia. Pawsitive Change launched at California City Correctional Facility in 2016 and has since expanded to five prisons and one juvenile facility.
“The first step in the rehabilitation program is for incarcerated people to start feeling again,” says Stephanie Taylor, head trainer at Wasco State Prison and program coordinator for Pawsitive Change. “Some of them haven’t seen a dog in 20 years, and when they do, it makes them feel more human — like a statue that suddenly smiles, and you see the love in their eyes.”
Taylor points out that, unlike people, dogs deal in simple emotions and live totally in the here and now, without judgement. A dog doesn’t care what you’ve done in your past or who you’ve hurt, so teaching humans to strip away the complexity of their feelings and engage on those basic terms is essential. “We learned how everything we’re feeling is channeled through the leash, like an umbilical cord,” says De La Rosa. “If I want the dog to respond to me, I have to be calm and confident. The program gave me the discipline and structure to be able to do that.”
De La Rosa spent the first 15 years of his 25-year sentence exhibiting nothing but negativity and bad behavior, and it constantly landed him in solitary confinement. “I was sure I’d die in prison, and I was acting like it. When I got out of the hole in 2013, I started doing the best I could to better myself.” Oscar Rodriguez, who also served 25 years and was able to turn his life around with help from Pawsitive Change, sees dog training as an extension of mindfulness practice.
“Dogs follow confidence and assertiveness,” Rodriguez says. “Working with them is a lot like sitting on a mat and meditating, constantly asking you to observe and assess: How am I feeling? That brings me back to me. And I apply those lessons to my thinking all the time now, like second nature. We determine what needs to be removed or added to a dog’s behavior, creating the way to a new normal. It does the same thing for us.”
Because prison is a highly segregated social environment in which people of different races do not often interact socially, Pawsitive Change builds mentor teams of two or three people, deliberately mixing Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian inmates to foster understanding and rapport. Wardens and correctional officers report reduced violence and disturbances in pods with a Pawsitive Change program.
“Good lord, the moment we came out into the yard to walk the dogs or train them, the whole mood in the yard just shifted,” Rodriguez says. “People softened up, asking if they could pet your dog, introducing themselves. And then we had the chance to use our knowledge and educate them on how to approach the dogs. You could share a laugh when these men were reminded of a dog they had when they were a kid. Sharing something like that takes an incredible vulnerability. That’s opening up.”
Beyond that, the dogs help foster better relationships between the inmates and the guards. De La Rosa recalls one of the captains asking for tips on how to train his dog at home. When the captain came to one of the course graduations, he had the chance to speak with De La Rosa’s family, who was visiting, and share pictures of his loved ones. “When the other guards saw that, they were maybe not so quick to pat me down, or hassle me as much,” he says.
De La Rosa and Rodriguez were able to gain release due to a series of recent prison reform laws that made it possible for juvenile offenders to earn parole. Since their releases, they’ve both found gainful employment working with dogs. De La Rosa is thriving at California Paws Rescue while simultaneously starting a business that follows up with adopted dogs and their new owners to continually reinforce the training. Rodriguez became a professional dog sitter, dog walker, and trainer, and both he and De La Rosa enjoy having dogs in their lives as pets.
Rodriguez’s nephew has three dogs that he regularly works with, while De La Rosa ended up adopting the last dog that he graduated from the program: “He got out three months before I did.”
These two men dug deep and reshaped their futures by investing their time and energy into dogs, and doing so gave them purpose, hope, and the opportunity to be more than just inmates. Through Pawsitive Change, incarcerated people can take comfort in the bond of fellowship with fellow students — especially between different racial groups — that the training forges. “There is a need for this program to be in every prison in America, period,” says Skow.
Every dog that has graduated from Pawsitive Change is now living in a new home, bringing joy outside the prison walls. For the people still inside, the dogs are both a pathway and a reminder of what it means to live a meaningful life, whether release is in the cards or not.

De La Rosa and Rodriguez are not letting their second chances go to waste, with leashes in hand and four-legged friends by their sides. “Going to prison is going to Mars and being told you’ve gotta live out there,” reflects Rodriguez. “When that became normal, I started to forget what it was like to be free. After 25 years, I’m sometimes feeling strange or uncomfortable at the newness of the world. These dogs are helping me heal.”