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Project POOCH's Joan Dalton stepping down after 23 years

Nonprofit that pairs young inmates with shelter dogs has become a model for groups all over the world


REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Joan Dalton announced in April that she will step down as program director at Project POOCH, the Lake Oswego-based nonprofit she founded 23 years ago.What would happen, Joan Dalton wondered in 1993, if she taught inmates at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn to care for and train shelter dogs for adoption? Would the inmates develop the personal and vocational skills they’d need to become responsible members of the community?

To find out, Dalton — who was then vice principal of MacLaren’s Lord High School — founded Project POOCH, starting out with one dog and one young felon. Her idea was simple: As the trainers managed their dogs, she believed, they would learn how to manage their own behavior.

They would also earn school credits, develop good work habits and acquire valuable occupational skills, Dalton thought. And she was right.

In the 23 years since Project POOCH began, the Lake Oswego-based nonprofit has changed — and no doubt saved — the lives of hundreds of dogs and young people. In 2008, Animal Planet designated Dalton “a hero,” and her program has been used as a model for similar projects all over the world.

But now, Dalton says, the time has come for her to step aside. She will continue working for Project POOCH, she announced in April, but no longer as its program director. Mark Fagerstrom, who most recently worked in various roles for The Salvation Army, has been named by the organization’s board to take her place.

Dalton says she’s stepping down for two main reasons.

“I received a grant (from the John A. Schroth Family Charitable Trust) to do a new curriculum for Project POOCH,” she says. “And I also have an agent who is interested in the POOCH story.”

It’s a story, Dalton says, that she felt compelled to tell after a visit from a former MacLaren inmate.

“He came here to talk to our current youth,” she says. “He brought his beagle named Ned. He talked about how there was still hope for a young man who had a felony charge against him and how he now had a good job in construction. Then we took him to lunch and went on a dog walk.

“Later, when we were in the parking lot, he burst into tears,” Dalton recalls. “That is when I realized there was so much pent-up emotion in these youth.”

For 23 years, Project POOCH has worked to break through that emotion. Inmates work with their dogs daily, practicing the principles of positive reinforcement and behavior modification. The emotional support and mutual trust established between the trainers and dogs are pivotal to the success of the program, Dalton says.

For some students and dogs, she adds, the relationship they form is their first experience of unconditional love — and that’s one of the reasons she founded Project POOCH in the first place.

“I was looking at the transcripts of the incarcerated youth and saw they were all high school dropouts,” she says, “and one of the common threads was that most of them didn’t have fathers. I thought, ‘Let’s see about a dog program in which kids could pick up credits. We could turn them into high school graduates.’ I always liked that age group. I love working with them, because their minds are so open to learning.”

Obviously, Dalton was onto something. Representatives from Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and other nations have come to Project POOCH’s headquarters in Lake Oswego to learn how to start their own projects. But what makes Dalton most proud is a study conducted by Pepperdine University in California that interviewed 100 of her former students.

“None of them had returned to a life of crime,” Dalton says. And in fact, the very first inmate to participate in Project POOCH is now working with youth gangs in Portland, trying to keep other young people out of trouble.

“What I will miss most about leaving POOCH is listening to former inmates who come back and speak about their success in finding work, going to college and continuing to help unfortunate dogs,” Salton says. “At the end of the day, I always felt good.”

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

MARK FAGERSTROM

A TIME OF CHANGE

Mark Fagerstrom, who most recently worked in a variety of roles with The Salvation Army, says he knows he is stepping into the role of program director at Project POOCH at a time of great change for the organization.

Not only is founder Joan Dalton stepping down as director, but Project POOCH also will soon need a new home; its lease is about to expire at its headquarters on Third Street and B Avenue in Lake Oswego. In addition, some key sources of funding for the nonprofit have dried up.

Fagerstrom, who holds a master’s in administration for nonprofit organizations, isn’t making light of the challenges. But he says he is confident that Project POOCH will continue to fulfill its mission of reforming young offenders and helping homeless dogs.

“It is a year of transition, but we’re going to be OK,” Fagerstrom says. “Project POOCH has a great platform, a good stable platform that will enable us to do good things. We’ve made a lot of technical improvements. We have better data management and record keeping.

“And we can talk about the legacy of a great vision from 23 years ago,” he adds. “The number of dogs Project POOCH has helped must run into the thousands.”

Fagerstrom says he takes heart from the organization’s many success stories.

“I’m very happy that this program has had such a great impact on so many lives,” he says. “That in turn has had an impact on society.”

So far, Fagerstrom’s favorite Project POOCH story is about an inmate who is in this nation illegally.

“He’s going to be deported when he gets out,” Fagerstrom says. “But when he gets home, he says he’s going to start the first Project POOCH in his own country.”

For more about Project POOCH, go to www.pooch.org or call 503 697-6023.