Everyone experiences their own version of rock bottom. No matter where you come from, the color of your skin, or where you work, everyone faces dark times. Even the people you least expect.
As the founder of one of California’s largest rescue operations, Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue, Zach Skow has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for animal welfare. Since 2009, he and his team have been responsible for the rescue and rehabilitation of thousands of animals. Thousands. Those who know him would describe him as a man good to his word, a great father to his children, a supportive partner to his wife, and a force to be reckoned with in the rescue world.
But he wasn’t always this way. There was a time when he didn’t know if he’d live to see the next day.
Zach was seventeen years old when he fell headfirst into addiction. For years, he lived a recurring nightmare, pushing himself closer to the breaking point until one day, he hit the bottom of his fall. In his twenties, in what should have been the prime of his life, he was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease and given just 90 days to live.
“One day I was in bed with all my dogs. I had soiled the bed, which was usual, and I had to undress myself, which was very painful at the time. I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
This scared…yellow person. I remember making contact with my eyes and not recognizing what I saw…I could feel my dogs behind me and I turn around and they’re just looking at me like I’m Matthew Macconahy mixed with Barack Obama, you know? Like, there’s nothing going wrong. They were saying, ‘Dad, we see you. We see you.‘ And I hadn’t seen myself… forever.”
Zach didn’t know it then but this day became the first day of the rest of his life. He decided that he was going to do right by his dogs. If he couldn’t fight to live for himself, he would fight to live for them. Zach began dedicating his time to his dogs; walking with them, hiking with them, and caring for their every need. He became a volunteer and started bringing dozens of other dogs into his pack. Before he knew it, he was six months sober and his liver was fully revived. It was in this journey to sobriety and health, this love for his dogs that Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue was born.
There is only one way to go when you have hit rock bottom, UP. That is exactly what happened to Zach’s life after starting his rescue. Marley’s Mutts took off and quickly began to flourish as a dog rescue – and after more than a decade of operating the rescue and thousands of lives changed for the better, Zach still wanted to do more. He and his team were looking for ways to have an impact on animals and people as well. More specifically, the kind of people who needed hope. The same kind of hope that Zach’s dogs were able to bring him in his darkest hour.
When a friend of theirs reached out, wanting to adopt a dog, they didn’t think too deeply about it at the time. The man had a troubled past and had been incarcerated for a period of time but was free and just trying to do right. They paired him with one of their rescue dogs and once they saw just how much that dog changed his world, how it made him smile again and hope for a better future, they came up with the Pawsitive Change Program in 2016.
“In the United States alone, we incarcerate 2.5 million people – that directly affects 10 million children. We also surrender millions of dogs all over the country, resulting in more than a million euthanizations.”
In regards to the animals, large dogs and more specifically, Pit Bull breeds, are being euthanized more than any other right now in our nation. In some shelters, these dogs don’t even have a fourth of the chance of survival that counterpart breeds do. And why? Their size does play a role in this, as many facilities don’t have the space for them, but most of it is just plain, old prejudice. Because of the way that society has painted these dogs over the decades, using the actions of the few to judge the majority, Pit Bulls aren’t wanted. In the state of California, many housing complexes have even gone so far as to ban Pit Bulls as well as any other breeds of similar appearance. So where does that leave them? In shelters, where they are killed by the dozens each day.
Knowing the reality of this situation, Zach and his team created the Pawsitive Change Program to help.
This 14-week rehabilitation program includes saving highly-euthanized dogs that otherwise wouldn’t have lived – like Pit Bulls – and pairing them with incarcerated citizens for training, rehabilitation, and a second chance at life. For the participants, the benefits are unbelievable. This program teaches these men and women how to tolerate, experience, and express emotional discomfort in constructive manners. It improves their sense of self-esteem and social value, it shows them how to be aware of the needs and emotional states of others and how to react appropriately, and it shows them how canine-handling principles can be applied to relationships in and outside of prison.
For the dogs, the training their handlers provide does a number of things. It improves their overall well-being and ability to succeed by balancing their social behavior toward other animals, decreasing symptoms of aggression, insecurity, and fear, and building up their trust with humans. After the program, while the participants receive vocational certificates that they can take with them once released, these dogs receive their Canine Good Citizen Certification.
Talk about a win-win.
For the Pawsitive Change team, there is an overwhelming belief that rests in their souls. Rescued dogs, rescue people. ALL people. They’ve seen it, they’ve lived it, and now, with this program, they’re giving those words action.
Since its birth in 2016, Pawsitive Change has spread its wings and is active in over five California State facilities. The program, to date, has successfully graduated over 600 incarcerated citizens, rehabilitated over 300 “high-risk” dogs, and achieved a 0% return rate for the 50 graduates who have since been released. That’s right. Zero. Percent.
Like with all things in life, some days are harder, yes, but it’s on those days that the team thinks of one very special graduate whose life changed for the better because of their program. A man named Isaac Delarosa.
“We first met Isaac at North Kern State Prison, where he had been incarcerated for 24 years. He entered our program looking for a purpose and fully dedicated himself to rehabilitating the dogs and himself. In those 14 weeks, Isaac fully gave himself to the dogs, he mentored new participants and continued to grow not only as a person, but as a canine handler as well.”
Delarosa then went on to graduate from the program and later, was granted parole on his FIRST parole board hearing. He was released in 2020 and from there, began volunteering at his local animal shelter. In early 2021, Isaac took the lessons and knowledge he learned in the Pawsitive Change Program and opened his own dog training business, Pawsitive Dog. To this day, he continues to invest himself in bettering people and dogs and is even looking into returning to the program as a mentor for those still incarcerated.
“Society has been conditioned to believe that all people in prison are dangerous. And in doing that, they’ve stopped being seen as humans. One of the missions of Pawsitive Change is to show society that these are all people with an immense amount of potential and desire to do better if only given the support and opportunity to show it.”
That’s why sharing stories like Isaac’s matters. That’s also why, with each class, the Pawsitive Change team works hard to document the process and gather as much content as they can. “The pictures play a large part in changing perceptions; the emotion, joy, and love in the photos allow people to see our students as humans rather than inmates”.
Additionally, they also share actual good-bye letters that their graduates write to their dogs.
“One of the tools we’ve used to help our guys adjust when the animals they’ve worked with graduate and get adopted out is the “Good-Bye Letter”. Participants are asked to write a letter to their dog, saying goodbye and giving them some advice moving forward.”
For Mentor Trainer Charles Damm, saying goodbye to his dog Charlie Brown this past December was as beautiful as it was heart-wrenching. In his letter, he writes to Charlie saying, “I could honestly say you put a genuine smile on my face every day. I hope I have done the best for you. I know we worked hard and at times, you were frustrated with me because it seemed like all work and no play, but please understand – everything I’ve done for you – all the work that we’ve put in was because I love YOU.”
It’s this kind of emotional honesty and expression that the Pawsitive Change Program states is crucial to the rehabilitation of these men and women.
“Our students get to thrive in our program and show the world they are much more than their past. They are human beings – JUST LIKE ALL OF US. We assemble every week to try and be of service to others and to ourselves. We grow in here. We share in here. We get outside our comfort zone in order to grow.”
The Pawsitive Change Program reminds us to practice forgiveness with each other as well as with ourselves. It shows us that change is possible.
In rescue, we see an overwhelming amount of animals that have come from horrible situations; animals who have experienced deep, lasting trauma. What do we tell them? We tell them that their past does not define their future and that there is hope still to be had.
The Pawsitive Change Program encourages us to apply this belief and sense of support to the men and women who participate in the program. At the end of the day, imperfections leave room for growth, mistakes give us opportunities to learn, and hope brings us the light in our darkest times.
The experiences and life-changing moments this program has given to Zach are few compared to what it’s given hundreds of people. The change that it’s brought since its inception in 2016 is astronomical and we cannot wait to see what the future brings.
To learn more about The Pawsitiive Change Program and donate towards its efforts, visit https://www.marleysmutts.org/pawsitivechange/
Donate to Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue and the continuation of their Pawsitive Change Program below.
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