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Lifestyle & Travel

From Technology Executive to Changing the Lives of Dogs and Inmates

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In 2007, Janette Thomas, now 63, founded Cell Dogs with the mission, she says, of providing second chances.

The nonprofit, which is based in Orange County, California, rescues dogs from local shelters and pairs them with inmates in juvenile and adult correctional facilities who train the pups in obedience to be ready for adoption.

For Thomas, Cell Dogs is the fulfillment of a dream that was deferred. Growing up in Long Island, New York, she’d always wanted to become a veterinarian. In the ‘70s, she graduated from college as a science major with strong grades and applied to every veterinary program in the United States and Canada. But with strict gender quotas that meant schools were only admitting a couple of women with each new class, Thomas was locked out. 

Instead, she went on to a very successful career in the burgeoning microelectronics industry. But her love for animals never waned. By her late 40s, Thomas was an executive with global responsibilities and growing weary, she says, “of spending 60 percent of my time on an airplane.” And newly married to a man who had three young children, Thomas decided to retire from the corporate world.

“I began identifying animal organizations that could use a volunteer,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in a salary. What I wanted to do was put my expertise to use in helping animals.”

That decision is what eventually led to Cell Dogs.  “The program teaches the inmates a lot of life skills,” Thomas says. “In training the dogs, they learn patience and forgiveness, problem-solving and responsibility. It helps them become better parents when they’re released, better neighbors and better employees.”  All of the dogs go on to find new homes, some as family pets and others as service companions to people with mobility challenges, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or children with autism. 

“Both the shelter dogs and the inmates who have made some poor choices in their lives get a chance at a new life,” Thomas says. The impact has been wide: nearly 350 dogs have been adopted or placed in service. And with a team of inmates working to train each dog over 8 to 10 weeks, thousands of male and female criminal offenders have become better prepared for life after their sentences are served.

Thomas says that getting in on the ground floor of the microelectronics industry “was the ride of a lifetime.” The new chapter of her life brings a sense of gratification that’s just as great. “I’m basically running a small business now,” she says. “Five years ago it was just me; now we have a staff of seven. Seeing how lives are changed by what we do motivates me to keep going, to grow the organization and to put in place succession planning.”

One of the lives Thomas changed was that of her own mother, who was the beneficiary of one of the Cell Dogs. “After my father passed away, she was lost,” Thomas says. “When she was in her 80s, she adopted a dog we’d trained and it changed her life. She had companionship again and unconditional love. Like a lot of seniors who are on their own, my mother had been at risk of becoming reclusive. Now, she’s out and about walking the dog and being social.  Dogs may provide an emotional and physical health benefit that are just amazing.”

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