Prison program helps dogs and inmates

Offenders train shelter dogs for adoption thanks to successful prison programs that give both inmates and animals a second chance in life.

When most people go to the shelter to adopt a dog, they look for one that’s trained, friendly and affectionate. Untrained dogs, especially those with fear or aggression issues, are usually passed over. Many are labeled “unadoptable” and end up being euthanized. But a lot of these homeless shelter dogs are being turned around and made ready for new homes by unique prison programs that have sprung up across the country and beyond. These programs engage inmates to train the animals in a win-win situation that benefits both dogs and offenders.

Inspired idea

It started in 1981 when a Dominican nun named Sister Pauline Quinn realized the over-crowded prison system was failing to help offenders contribute positively to society. She had an idea she hoped would help inmates feel they were not only part of society, but were actually giving back to their community. Sister Pauline got several professional dog trainers together and launched the first dog training program at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women. The center takes homeless dogs and trains them to be service dogs for physically impaired people. Hundreds of dogs have come out of this program since it started.

Since then, many similar prison programs have started up, not only in the US but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Italy. At least 20 American states have one or more of these programs operating, and some care for horses and other animals as well as dogs. There’s even a program in Oregon for juvenile offenders. It teaches kids how to care for animals and is being copied in other juvenile facilities across the nation. Most of the programs are run and maintained by individual non-profit organizations so the cost isn’t a burden on prisons or taxpayers.

How it works

I’m fortunate to be a professional dog trainer volunteering at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. Our program started about a year ago and we’ve already had 18 shelter dogs graduate and be adopted.

The dogs in our particular program are not trained to be service dogs, but are taught basic commands such as sit, stay, heel, come, lie down, don’t jump up, shake hands, and leave it. We focus on training them to be good citizens as defined by the American Kennel Club’s Good Canine Citizenship program.

Upon arrival, the dogs are first socialized in groups of six. After two to three weeks of being with the inmates taking part in the program, they are socialized with the rest of the prison population. The total program lasts about ten weeks, during which the inmates work with the professional trainer to help the dogs.

During this time, the dogs live in the cells with their trainers. There are two offenders to a cell. One is the primary trainer and the other the secondary trainer. We also have several inmate “doggie sitters” if the two trainers are not available to be with the dog. These “doggie sitters” must meet the same criteria and go through the same educational process the primary and secondary trainers go through. The rules are the same for everyone in the program, and it’s working very nicely.

We give each dog the AKC Canine Good Citizenship test before they leave the prison and head to their new homes. This assures their new families they’ve overcome their behavioral issues and should be good with other people and dogs.

Benefits for people and dogs

Each program in each prison is run a little differently. The programs can run from six weeks to 18 months or longer. If dogs are just being trained in basic commands, the length of time is seven to 12 weeks. If they’re being trained as service dogs for people with physical impairments, the programs can go on for 18 months or more. But they all have the same basic outcome – to save dogs from being euthanized, and give offenders a sense of purpose and relief from boredom. Working and interacting with animals has therapeutic value in a wide variety of settings and prison is no exception. Many offenders feel isolated and unvalued.

prison programWorking with a dog can help promote a healthier mental state and reduce boredom and restlessness, big problems in many correctional facilities. Research is also being compiled to see how these programs affect both offenders and administrators in a prison. In many cases, the barriers of fear and mistrust between staff and offenders are lowered. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that recidivism and behavioral infractions may be reduced among inmates that work with the dogs.

Offenders have to meet strict criteria to be considered for the program, so competition can be great. Many prisons allow only model offenders to participate. If these offenders violate any rule or have incidents with other offenders, their privilege to be in the program is taken away. Offenders therefore have an incentive to behave. Other offenders have been reported to follow this lead in the hopes of being picked for the program.

Thanks to these prison programs, thousands of homeless and unwanted dogs have been retrained, rehabilitated and relocated in adoptive “forever” homes, with physically or mentally impaired people, or working in search and rescue. The programs have saved many dogs that might have found themselves on death row.

This second chance at life is one thing the offenders and dogs have in common. It creates a very special bond between them. The offenders know they’re helping the animals, and in return feel they’re being given another chance too. Many prison programs also offer courses for offenders interested in working with animals when they’re released. Several have stated how the program has changed their lives, and that it helps them feel they can succeed at something.