Going to prison every week has become such a part of our routine that we don’t think about it when we are discussing the programs and are always surprised when we receive strange looks.
There have been a number of dog training programs in prisons across the country for years and the trend seems to be growing. Some of them train Service Dogs for people with disabilities, some work with animal shelters and rescue groups to help make dogs more adoptable with basic manners training. Some are more successful than others, some prison programs are more structured than others; some use prison staff to work with the inmates and some work with outside agencies. The security level of the prison is also a consideration when looking at procedures. Over the past ten years we have identified three necessary components for a successful prison dog training program.
We know the training program is not only beneficial for the dogs, but makes a significant difference in the lives of inmates, staff and families. The inmates’ increased confidence, empathy and ability to share emotions with the dogs open new ways of thinking and relating to others. Many of the inmates will be eligible for parole and since prison is a regimented environment, this program gives them the opportunity to be responsible for their job, practice patience, exercise self-control, keep on schedule and develop and meet short and long-term goals; all behaviors they need to have in place when they return to their families and the community.
The first and most important component for a good program is to have the support of both the Warden and the Chief of Security. They have the ultimate responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the prison. Bringing dogs into the facility will require the staff to make some changes in their procedures; let’s face it – all people are not dog lovers and all staff will not be supportive of the program.
Secondly, choosing appropriate dogs to participate is not as easy as it appears. Looking from the dog’s point of view, if using shelter dogs, most of them have been living in a back yard most of their life. They are not accustomed to being surrounded by so many people, other dogs and living in close quarters. For some dogs, the stress is more than they can cope with and they totally shut down. It’s important for the inmates to be able to work with dogs that are going to respond to them and progress in the training. We try to select dogs that are very “dog friendly” since any suggestion of aggression is not allowed in prison. This will rule out those dogs that are vocal when they play or dogs that are “mouthy” about their personal space. All of the dogs are altered, current on vaccinations, heart-worm tested, and are apparently healthy. A dog that is shy with people is not ruled out and dogs whose faults can be corrected with positive training techniques are ideal. These are rescue dogs who would most likely not be adopted due to their age, size or unruly behavior. After the ten-week training class is completed, most of the dogs have made a dramatic improvement and are ready to move into a new home.
The third very important component to a successful program is the skill of the instructor that works with the inmates and dogs. The inmates have some restrictions concerning the space they have available for training and the type of equipment they use. The instructor must be familiar with a variety of training techniques and also be able to give the inmates possible solutions to a multitude of behavior problems. We all agree that the best instructors also have good people skills. The ability to listen to the trainers and help them learn how to respond to different situations they are faced with is an important part of their training. Some of the inmates are not supportive of having dogs in their building and part of what the trainers are learning is how to deal with confrontation in a diplomatic manner.
Some programs use staff as instructors which was our original goal when beginning this program ten years ago. We eventually decided it was better for the program to have outside instructors come in each week. Maintaining consistency and being able to keep the trainers challenged to learn is an important part of a good program. We give each inmate a training booklet that includes an outline of what will be covered in each class. Each week there is a homework sheet with instructions and suggestions for both the designated trainer and the secondary trainer. The inmates select an inmate instructor that keeps a record of any problems that occur during the week, helps new inmates with training and maintains a list of needed supplies. There is also a handout each week of various articles. We take some time to discuss the articles to help the men continue to learn and understand different training techniques. Each trainer keeps a daily journal that is turned in every week. We review the journals, make suggestions, use some of the information to spark discussion during class, and then they are returned to the trainer for them to keep as a reference.
As the inmates gain experience, we add variety to the classes by bringing in veterinarians, groomers and others in the community involved with dogs. Toward the end of the ten-week class the inmates also teach tricks to the dogs and write a bio for each dog that will go with the dog on graduation.
A project for one of the ten-week sessions was to produce a video. They decided to divide the class into two basketball teams and taught the dogs a variety of skills that are used in the video of a basketball game. This particular class of dogs happened to have some labradoodles in it, so the teams are divided and named appropriately – the Doodles Dandy vs. the Variety Pack.
Also, James Spinner (one of the inmates) wrote a book about this program, “Saved by the Dogs: The Story of the Dog Men.” As with everything we do, there is a ripple effect.
©2014 Barbara Lewis