Skow was diagnosed with end stage liver disease in 2008. He needed a liver transplant but had no way to get one without six months of sobriety. And without a transplant, he would die. He was given just 90 days to live.
He came home from the hospital under hospice care, and was very, very sick: He had problems with his kidneys, pancreas, gallbladder, he looked yellow in the face, plus he was going through opiate withdrawal and had intense and confusing brain fog and hallucinations. He didn’t recognize himself when he looked in the mirror.
“All I wanted to do was kill myself,” Skow said. “I was highly focused on taking my own life. I just couldn't figure out how to live. I had not been without drugs and alcohol my whole life. I just didn't know how to do anything. I was scared of people, places, and things. And worse than that, I wasn't going to survive anyway. I was hopeless.”
His only goal became surviving six months sober to become eligible for the transplant. He said his Rottweiler-pitbull, Marley, was the “catalyzing force” behind his recovery, and Skow even credits Marley with saving his life. In the middle of the night, he would hold Marley to distract himself from the pain and discomfort, feeling the dog’s grounding, solid strength. He started building kennels in his dad’s garage, and started bringing in more foster dogs.]
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He had been rescuing and fostering dogs all his life — he rescued his first dog, Specker, when he was nine years old and found him in a storm drain on his way home from school. Going through this healing process with the dogs was “transformative,” he said, and he began “bringing more dogs into the pack.”
Every two days he drove two-and-a-half hours each way from Tehachapi, California to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for blood work and imaging. He started journaling, and every day for months he watched the sunrise with the dogs. They went on walks, each day going a little bit farther as Skow’s body grew stronger.
“[The dogs] saw who I was, and they saw what was inside me,” Skow said.
This is how his nonprofit, Marley’s Mutts, was born. Instead of “feeling all the sorry and pity” for himself, he started making adoption flyers.
“If I couldn't like myself, I wasn't gonna live,” Skow said. “And the dogs just distracted me long enough to get good at that.”
At the end of the six-month waiting period, he didn’t need the transplant after all. His doctor was shocked and told him that whatever he was doing to heal was working. In May 2009, he turned Marley’s Mutts into a nonprofit organization, making it an official rescue of shelter mutts, which at the time was far less popular than it is now. They rescue dogs from shelters in Kern County, a county with one of the highest euthanasia rates in the country.
He funded the new organization by selling T-shirts, staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. ironing on the organization’s logo to shirts he bought at K-Mart. He panhandled the shirts at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and asked around for support.
At the heart of the organization's mission is second chances:
When a buddy of his got out of prison, Skow connected him with a dog, and he saw how their relationship “changed the whole trajectory of his life.” He felt he was onto something and spent nearly five years trying to set up a dog program in prisons. They finally were accepted into the California City Correctional Facility, and since then it’s been Skow’s mission to get into every prison in America.
“We have done our nation and ourselves a tremendous disservice by assuming that the two-and-a-half million incarcerated men and women in this country can't be productive, incredible, wonderful sources of light for this world”
Here’s how the prison program, called Pawsitive Change, works: Marley’s Mutts partners with California state prisons and pairs incarcerated men with a rescue dog for three months, with the goal of “mutual rehabilitation.” The inmates have weekly tasks to complete and are set up to build compassion, develop skills, combat recidivism, and prepare for healthy and productive lives after incarceration. Every year the program trains more than 150 dogs with 400 inmates.
Marley’s Mutts chooses dogs based on the dog’s compatibility with the program: their breed and their personality, for example. Dogs that need structure, training, and routine thrive in the program. Dogs that don’t have a strong connection with people benefit, too, because they develop trust with people during the program. Surprisingly, the most insecure, reserved dogs generally end up doing well because they get so much time with the program participants.
Though he’s passionate about animals, Skow said he’s even more connected to the work he does to help people. He laments the fact that the U.S. spends $182 billion per year locking up more than 2 million people — numbers that come from a study by the Prison Policy Initiative.
California spends more to keep one person in prison every year than Skow makes as the director of his nonprofit. He bemoans the way the U.S. prison system affects families, especially the children, of incarcerated people. He wants to play a part in creating opportunities for these people who have the odds stacked against them.
“We have done our nation and ourselves a tremendous disservice by assuming that the two-and-a-half million incarcerated men and women in this country can't be productive, incredible, wonderful sources of light for this world,” he said.
”We all have something to offer this world, and we are all deserving of a second chance.”
He’s designed the prison program to work as a pathway for people to redeem their lives, to progress society, and to break the prison cycle. Many of the Pawsitive Change program participants end up working for rescues or as trainers once they leave prison, a development that makes Skow proud.
“What it’s really helping people do is understand that returning citizens — formerly incarcerated people — are human beings,” Skow said. “[They have] enormous potential and maybe even more perspective on life than a lot of us do because of what they've been through. ... We all have something to offer this world, and we are all deserving of a second chance.”