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wags - Prison Dogs

  By: A.J. Mistretta

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Prison Dogs

The statistics on incarceration in the United States are staggering. The U.S. Department of Justice reports more than 2 million people were held in Federal and state prisons or in local jails in 2003, and the number is rising at a rate of about 3.7 percent each year. With so many prisoners to manage and budgets often stretched thin, prison officials frequently complain they can barely maintain day-to-day operations much less institute rehabilitation programs.

Admittedly the outlook is bleak. But what if something could be done to improve the future for even a few inmates? Something that gave them usable job skills and hope for a life outside prison. That’s what was going through Sister Pauline Quinn’s mind when she developed one of the country’s first prison dog programs in the early 1980s.

Quinn, a Dominican nun, recognized the plight of an overworked prison system barely sustaining itself. Her idea: renew inmates’ belief in themselves and show them they could contribute positively to society.

With the help of several professional dog trainers, Quinn launched the initial prison dog program at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women in 1981. From there her work spread through the years to other prisons around the nation and the world (she recently helped establish a prison dog program in Rome, Italy).

The concept is simple. Programs that enlist dogs to aide people, from guide dogs for the blind to police canines, spend months and sometimes years training animals for service. Such programs require dedicated workers and volunteers with established training skills. But often trainers cannot spend all of their time with the dogs and the lack of consistent training can diminish the animals’ effectiveness. Enter the prisoner, who with nothing on his hands but time can keep a dog with him 24/7 and drill the necessary skills for as long as it takes. The inmates also benefit by learning valuable skills they’ll be able to use outside prison.

“The reason I started the program was to help the inmates become other-centered,” Quinn says. “In the prison system they don’t have the opportunity to do things that will help other people. But in helping others our lives change and we can see a different perspective on life.”

Having dogs in a prison system focused on control and punishment is unusual and can be difficult, especially if not done properly, Quinn says. One common mistake programs make is to use the inmates as glorified babysitters without attention to their needs. “If the focus is just on the dogs and there is no attention to the inmates, the program won’t work, it just won’t develop. It has to be focused on the inmates,” she says. “I get emails from people all the time who want to do this. But they don’t really realize what’s involved.”

There is no association of prison dog programs and no government agency keeps track of how many are operating. By some estimates there are hundreds around the country (the state of Ohio has programs in at least 29 prisons) in both women’s and men’s facilities. With so many programs, undoubtedly thousands of both dogs and inmates have made their way through their own prison dog journey.

Most prison dog programs do not cost correction departments any money. Often they are maintained by individual non-profit organizations. Quinn says prisons are usually willing to help in some ways, perhaps providing fenced yards for the dogs to run or establishing a separate area in the prison for the inmates and dogs in the program.

At Puppies Behind Bars in New York, dogs specially bred for guide service are placed in six prisons in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. The puppies spend 18 months beginning at eight weeks of age with an inmate. Inmates in the program live separate from the prison’s general population with their dogs, but they must maintain a regular prison job along with their work as a trainer. The constant contact between dog and trainer and the inmates’ dedication means the program often turns out exceptionally well-trained dogs, says Annie Teillon, director of development for the Manhattan-based non-profit.

Once dogs finish their training with inmates, they are turned over to either a guide dog school or law enforcement officials for bomb sniffing programs. Now in its eighth year, Puppies Behind Bars has graduated 34 working dogs (23 are guide dogs and 11 work as explosive detection dogs in the United States and abroad).

Giving inmate-trainers hope for a future beyond the prison walls is one of the center points of the program, Teillon says. Puppies Behind Bars arranges for interested inmates to take correspondence courses in grooming, animal care and related fields. But that’s only half the battle, she says. “We want to make people on the outside see them as potential employees.”

Many U.S. prisons want to bring in dog training programs but establishing new programs is not for the feint of heart, Teillon says. “It is a lot of time and effort and it’s essential that you have the support of the state department of corrections, that’s key.”

Despite the obstacles, Teillon says the benefit of prison dog programs for inmates is immeasurable. “A lot of them have taken a life, so to be trusted with a life has an added meaning,” she says. “They’re able to grow self-esteem through this work. This is the best thing they have going on in prison and they don’t want to mess it up. For them it’s a way to show the outside world that they can succeed at something.”

From the streets New York, prison dog programs have made their way into small town America. Last year, the Kyle Correctional Unit in Kyle, Texas partnered with nearby animal shelter, Public for Animal Welfare Society, Inc. or PAWS. PAWS dog trainer Courtney Fish says the prison’s warden asked shelter officials about developing a program that would teach inmates some usable job skills. The inmate participants at Kyle are all about to be released, many after serving years on drug or related charges, and are in their final six months of rehab.

Each week, Fish goes to the prison and teaches the inmates the basics of dog training. After two weeks of education, each inmate gets a dog he keeps for seven weeks during which time he trains obedience and even a few tricks. The end results are dogs more likely to be adopted. Fish says all of a recent group of dogs that went through training at the prison have found homes.

Both PAWS and the prison are touting the program’s success, and already there’s talk of adding more dogs and inmates to the roster and maybe even bringing in an agility training course, Fish says.

But perhaps most rewarding for Fish is working with the inmates. “I really see a lot of goodness coming out of these guys,” she says. “They’re about to get out of prison and they aren’t ready for the world. This is a big responsibility for them. It’s giving them the opportunity to look after something 24 hours a day.”

Recently Fish’s students presented her with a thank you card for all she’s taught them and for bringing the dogs that have added so much to their lives. All of the inmates signed it. But one short phrase signed by a student particularly moved Fish. “He wrote ‘thank you for teaching me to be me and having confidence in what I love to do.’ That really got to me.”

For Fish, prison dog programs are the last word in fair justice. “These guys are pulling their weight and they’ve paid their debt. Now they have to be given a chance.”

Photographs by Cami Johnson,