A New Orleans transplant believes in second chances for dogs — and humans.
“I’m the only person on Earth who can say he has CATS training dogs,” laughs Bill Barse. Of course, CATS is an acronym; it stands for Canine Assessment and Training Staff, meaning the Louisiana prison inmates who train dogs through Barse’s nonprofit, Doggone Express.
Barse, who owns a commercial real estate brokerage, moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help his brother and sister-in-law rebuild. Though he only planned to stay for a year, he did well in real estate and eventually made a home in Belle Chasse, La.
When he wasn’t working, Barse noticed a problem that no one seemed to be addressing. Feral dogs were running wild in New Orleans, either orphaned by the hurricane or simply abandoned. Local animal shelters were understaffed and overcrowded, and only one shelter had a no-kill policy. “There were a huge number of dogs being put down at the kill shelters,” Barse says.
Barse had previously worked as a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator in Maryland, helping wild birds recover from injuries. “I call it a blessed gift that animals seem to know something about me,” he says. “I love animals. This is what I have fallen into as my mission.”
Barse wanted to do something for New Orleans’ wild dogs, so he purchased several 16-foot cargo trailers and began allowing animal rescue groups to use them to shuttle adoptable dogs to no-kill shelters farther north. The trailers doubled as a means to evacuate animals to safe harbor during New Orleans’ hurricane season. Thus, Doggone Express was born.
At the organization’s pet-adoption events, Barse encountered a common sentiment. “Many people said, ‘I would love to adopt a dog, but I don’t have time to train it,’” he remembers. Knowing that conventional dog-training classes can be prohibitively expensive, Barse did some research and discovered a program that paired dogs with prison inmates for obedience and behavioral training.
The program, called Pathways to Hope, was created by Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun, and had been successfully implemented at 10 prisons throughout the United States. Barse tracked Quinn down and bought the rights to Pathways to Hope. He named the program “From The Big House To Your House,” and began pitching it to prisons throughout Louisiana.
Now, Doggone Express works with nearly every animal-rescue group in the state. Inmates learn to safely train dogs to obey basic commands like “Sit,” “Stay,” “Come” and “Drop it,” and socialize their canine charges to be relaxed and comfortable around other dogs. The program also trains service dogs for the Wounded Warrior Project, and therapy dogs for those who need a pet’s support and comfort. “We can train [a] dog for a regular adoption in four to five weeks,” Barse notes. “Shelter dogs make great pets: ‘forever’ pets.”
Though the dogs benefit from their training, Doggone Express is also an emotional boon to the inmates who participate. “We’re looking for a change in the CATS as well as the dogs,” says Barse, who has seen Louisiana prison inmates’ rates of recidivism drop to as low as 15 percent (from 50 to 60 percent) when inmates are provided with opportunities for education and vocational training. “It’s called the Department of Corrections; it’s not the Department of Incarcerations,” he says. doggoneexpress.com