Prison dog training program yields harvest of hope for dogs, inmates

First he got into a fight at the doggie daycare. Then he viciously attacked a smaller dog at an Indianapolis park. At 9 months old, Checkers, a pit bull mix, seemed destined to return to the county shelter from which he came. "When I saw him attack this little dog, it was terrifying," says Checkers' owner, Sarah Barclay. "These people started screaming. I was scared. I told my husband, 'We have to get rid of him.'"

Animal rehabilitation through incarceration

Instead, the Barclays sent Checkers to prison, or more precisely, to the Prison Tails program at the Westville Correctional Facility outside of Chicago. Prison Tails and programs like it nationwide pair troubled or otherwise unadoptable dogs with inmates. Together, the two outcast groups help each other develop skills needed to function in society.

At Westville, Checkers met his match in Paul Tobias, a tattooed mountain of a man with piercing blue eyes that well with tears when he talks about the dog program. Tobias, who served his first sentence for robbery when he was 22, has been inside most of his adult life. Now 43, he's 15 years into a 20-year sentence, again for armed robbery.

A lifetime of lockdown and razor wire can't compare with his last two years in the dog program. "A lot of hate," he says about prison life before the dogs came. "Everything negative, nothing positive."Now he smiles. Looks people in the eye. Carries himself like a man with a future instead of a past. "All of the dogs' problems lie in the misplaced belief they're in charge, just like me when I was acting the fool on the streets," he says.

Twenty-four dogs are in Prison Tails, and about 300 have been through the program since it began in 2004. Most of them come from local shelters.

A limited number, like Checkers, already have owners but are accepted for a fee into the "Express Train" program to get the 24-hour attention inmates can provide. The four-week program costs $300; the eight-week program, $500.

Dogs, inmates form unique relationship

At Westville, as at most prison dog programs, the dogs live with the inmates in a special dorm. The prison provides access, space and a full-time liaison and pays the inmates $1.25 a day like it would for any other inmate job program. Private nonprofit group Mixed-up Mutts of nearby La Porte, Ind., provides everything else. The budget is "anything we can raise," say founders Sarah and Cris Stevens. Typically, that is about $25,000 a year.

The Save Our Shelters "Pen Pals" program in Virginia oversees programs in five state prisons.

"The dogs are in there because they've never been loved," says Pixie Williams, executive director of Pen Pals. "Humans are in there because they've never been loved. Together, they give each other unconditional love."

Since 2001, her program has found homes for 450 otherwise unadoptable dogs. "Our return rate is less than 1 percent," Williams says. "They would probably all have been euthanized. We don't get the most popular dogs. That's our mission: to get the dogs that are hardest to adopt."

Other programs report similar success. The Hounds of Prison Education, or HOPE, program in Pennsylvania, goes one step further to ensure a long and happy adoption: free training for the life of the dog. "The people who are adopting from the program know that it is going to take continued effort on their part and on the part of the dogs," says Kelly McGinley, program coordinator. "The trainer will even go to their house."

Rehabilitation for inmates

Success with inmates is more difficult to document. Program directors say their inmates are less likely to re-offend, but they also acknowledge they take only the best inmates with the least-violent backgrounds, or, as Williams puts it, the "National Honor Society" of the state prison system.

The benefits of such programs, says Dana Britton, professor of sociology at Kansas State University, are indeed hard to quantify but no less profound. "We know that they have positive effects inside institutions and in improving relationships between institutions and the community, not to mention saving animals' lives and improving the lives of those who get assistance for their animals or pets," Britton says. "In the scheme of jobs inmates could do in prison - much of which is meaningless or busy work - these programs are very good positive alternatives."

But such programs aren't universally welcomed. Britton said a Kansas newspaper's story about an inmate training program elicited an angry letter from a crime victim outraged that convicts reap the benefits of dog training. "The American people are clearly conflicted about the prospect of rehabilitation, with 'get tough' sentiments coexisting with an ethic that admits the possibility of reform," Britton says.

Tony Orange is one ex-convict who says Pen Pals changed his life. In 1993, he was a 39-year-old drug addict facing 33 years at the James River Correctional Center in State Farm, Va., for a series of robberies in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax. "When I first walked into the cell block, I said to myself, 'What in the [bleep] have you got yourself into now?'" Orange says.

Not until 2001 would Orange see inmates training dogs. Within two years, he was the lead trainer and had been featured on the "Cell Dogs" program on Animal Planet.

On Jan. 20, 2004, Orange won parole. Now 55, he is owner of Dogworld ABC, a training program in Sperryville, Va., and trainer for the SPCA of Northern Virginia. "I was addicted to narcotics and I committed crimes to support that habit," Orange says. "Fortunately, I was locked up."

But he doesn't recommend prison as a recovery program, or dog programs for every inmate. "You have to have the ability to communicate with people," he says. "The dog is the easy part for me. Most of the dog's problems come from the owners. If you want your dog's behavior to hange, you need to change your behavior with the dog."

The programs help inmates. They help dogs. So why aren't they in every prison? Two essentials are money and a strong local nonprofit group to manage the program. For example, the Hounds of Prison Education, or HOPE, in Pennsylvania survives on private donations and an army of volunteers. Created by the Central Pennsylvania Animal Alliance, a network of 50 shelters and animal welfare groups, HOPE works in conjunction with the State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill, Pa. The prison provides room for the program and access to inmates. Everything else - from dog collars to dog food - is donated or paid for through grants or fundraisers.

Back in Indianapolis, the Barclays recently celebrated Checkers' third birthday. His attitude bears little resemblance to that of two years ago. After Prison Tails, "our dog was a totally different dog," she says. "It was unbelievable."

They still keep in touch with Paul Tobias, or "Uncle Paul," as they call him. "He's a scary-looking guy," Sarah says. "But he melts my heart for what he did for my dog."

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