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People recognize the need for prisons, but no one wants one in their neighborhood. Prisons lower home values, and living near a prison is not desirable, unless you work at one. However, there are several prisons in the United States that are taking steps to better the communities in which they reside. Some prisons run animal shelters and training programs to save dogs from certain death in kill shelters and give them training to become good pets or even service companions. These programs not only help the homeless dogs they save and train, they also help members of the community who need assistance, as well as the prisoners themselves, who often learn marketable skills they can use once released.

DAWGS in Prison

DAWGS in Prison (Developing Adoptable Dogs With Good Sociability) is a Florida-based program that adopts dogs from shelters and trains them to be good companions. The dogs complete eight weeks of training, which is administered by prisoners in the Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka, Florida. During their training, the dogs live with the prisoners in a dormitory-style work camp. All the dogs are crate- and house-trained and learn to sit, stay, recall, lie down, heel, and respond to “no” and “leave it.” Some of the dogs in the program go on to advanced training and become therapy dogs that help autistic children.

Not all prisoners can work in the DAWGS program. Inmates must fill out an application, submit to an interview, and be screened for animal abuse and be non-violent offenders. To stay in the program, inmates must perform well and be dedicated. Three inmates are assigned to each dog. The dogs live with the prisoners in their dorm and sleep in kennels next to their inmate trainers. Not only are the dogs being trained by caring companions, they also are socialized and exposed to different sounds. The inmates are also changed by participating in this program. They learn skills that can help them find jobs and instill meaning in their lives outside of prison, which helps them avoid re-incarceration. As one inmate said, “I woke up during my first year of the DAWGS program. My attitude changed. My routine changed. My health changed. My priorities changed. Everything changed in my life in order for me to be responsible enough to take care of one of God’s precious creations. DAWGS gave me the wisdom to see what kinds of changes were needed in my life in order to be a productive citizen again after a total of 26 years behind bars.” DAWGS in Prison really is people helping dogs and dogs helping people.

In three years, DAWGS in Prison has saved 189 dogs. Fiona, a female Plott Hound, came to DAWGS in Prison suffering from severe neglect. She had a rope around her neck, missing hair, and large open sores on her front legs. In many shelters, the cost of rehabilitating Fiona would have been overwhelming and she would have been euthanized. But the prisoners gave her good care, food, supplements, and training. Fiona’s sweet temperament and warm, gentle eyes, combined with her training all but ensured that she would be adopted. And by the time she was adopted by a family in Florida, Fiona was thriving.

Lance came to DAWGS with a skin condition so terrible they could not tell he was a Golden Retriever. He had big patches of hair loss and huge open sores, but he still seemed friendly and eager to be with people. The inmates took care of Lance and gave him the same training as Fiona. He was adopted by a family in Fort Lauderdale where he loves to go to the dog park and to the lake for a swim. Lance’s new family wrote to DAWGS with an update on Lance and said, “He is doing very well.  Lance has continued his training, heels well, and is just the best dog. He is so loving…Thank you for saving him.”

Hounds of Prison Education (HOPE)

HOPE began in 2005 as a joint effort between the Central Pennsylvania Animal Alliance (CPAA) and the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill. In this program, as in the DAWGS in Prison program, the inmates are carefully screened and then paired with homeless dogs in need. The training at HOPE takes six to twelve weeks, during which the dogs receive basic obedience training, socialization, behavior modification, and much-needed love and attention. The dogs and the inmates live together in the cell block and they attend weekly training sessions. Many of the dogs that HOPE takes in have been abused or neglected and some need rehabilitation and extra training time, so those dogs stay as long as needed. After graduation the dogs are adopted or stay in a foster home until they are matched with permanent homes. Some of the HOPE dogs have even gone on to more advanced training to live with veterans that have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Through the HOPE program, 130 dogs have been saved. At two years old an English Setter named Mason was abandoned by his family and placed in a foster home. His foster mother noticed that Mason was a spinner; spinning to go out, to eat, or just to spin. But Mason’s foster mom thought he had potential, so she turned to the HOPE program. Mason was transferred to the “big house” and after two weeks was already doing sit/stays at 20 feet. Adoption applications were flying in, but none seemed a good match until Tommy, a Vietnam veteran living with PTSD. When Tommy met Mason, both realized they were a perfect match. Tommy gives Mason a safe and loving home, and Mason helps Tommy manage his PTSD through a variety of touch commands and skills like turning on the lights and checking a room for safety so Tommy can enjoy life with less anxiety. Since they have been together, Tommy and Mason have passed their Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog International tests and are getting ready to take their Official Service Dog Certification test. Recently, Tommy was sharing his personal story to help people better understand the symptoms of PTSD. When sharing the details of his story became overwhelming for Tommy, Mason awoke from a sound sleep to comfort his friend. As the HOPE website shares, Mason “immediately went to Tommy’s side, nuzzled his soft head into Tommy’s outstretched hand and focused on him until he could sense that Tommy had settled. Their bond was unmistakable and left the entire room in awe of the friendship before them.”

Nyla and Leah were abandoned and starving in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just a few weeks before Christmas. Finding a home for two pit bulls right before the holidays was a daunting task, so the girls were sent to a rescue group where they were given temporary lodging. It was safe, but it wasn’t home. In June, the girls were offered spots in the HOPE program. Once they entered the prison, Nyla and Leah were showered with attention, love, and training. Both dogs recovered from their trauma and graduated with new skills and happy memories. In September, both dogs were adopted. Nyla went to a loving home complete with a picture window, a special dog bed, and a partially deflated basketball. Leah went home with a family that provided her with a canine sister and they hit it off right away. It was a perfect ending for two perfect dogs.

K-9 Companion Program at Colorado Correctional Industries

The K-9 Companion program at Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) has saved an amazing 6,000 dogs; including 2,580 dogs from shelters! CCI has achieved this by running their program as a business, which differs from other organizations that operate as volunteer services. This business-driven approach is dictated by a Colorado mandate requiring offenders to work, learn a vocation, and run a business through offender output. The dog-training program runs a boarding service staffed by offenders in the program. The profit derived from the boarding business goes toward rescuing dogs from shelters, training them, and adopting them to permanent families. The dog-training program essentially funds itself.

All the dogs rescued by CCI receive excellent veterinary care, which includes all vaccines, heartworm tests and treatment, and preventative care. The dogs that come to CCI suffering from abuse, neglect, or improper nourishment get additional treatment to heal them, and all dogs that enter the CCI program are spayed or neutered. The dogs also receive a great deal of training, including socialization, crate- and house-training, and learning commands such as sit/stay, down, and heel. Many of the dogs also learn hand signals, tricks, or agility skills, which builds confidence and gives the dogs exercise.

There are 140 offenders in the program at all times, and there are currently 160 dogs in the program. As CCI’s Dog Program Supervisor, Debi Stevens says, “Not only are we rescuing dogs, we are helping people. The offenders learn totally new life skills in the program. They have to learn to be team players and to communicate. In turn, the dogs give them unconditional love.” After release, many of the offenders who worked in the CCI dog program take jobs in the pet industry.

One of CCI’s many success stories is the heartwarming story of young Allison Winn. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Allison endured surgery and chemotherapy. As a present, Allison was given a Bichon Frise that was confiscated from a puppy mill and rescued by CCI. Allison named the white fluffy dog Coco, and they became the best of friends.

As Allison got better, she realized she wanted to do something to help other sick children find a canine friend of their own. So she launched a dog biscuit-baking campaign, the proceeds of which go to CCI to train more dogs to be companions for sick children. Allison’s charity, the Stinkbug Project has helped more than a dozen sick children get K-9 companions that were rescued and trained by CCI. As the Stinkbug Project itself acknowledges, it may seem counterintuitive to introduce a pet into the home of a critically ill child. However, dogs have been proven to lower stress for both the patient and the caregiver and companion animals can also help siblings as they also suffer in such a stressful time.

Prisons, by their very nature, serve as reminders of the worst in humankind. However, some prisons are striving to make a difference and improve their surrounding communities, save the lives of innocent animals, and improve the future for inmates. The dog-rescue and training programs these prisons have created are certainly serving their communities well and improving the lives of both dogs and humans.

By Charlene Sloan

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