“Success is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.”
Last night I got the wonderful experience to attend a banquet at Stanley Correctional Institution for the PAWS program with the inmate handlers and sitters. And while I make the long drive to the facility, I often think about what I can learn during my opportunity. What is it about the prison programs that makes them special? Why should anyone care about the dog programs in prison? Are these programs valuable for anything other than just having a place to put dogs until final training? Each time I get the privilege of getting to see a program like this in action, I gain a newfound respect for the programs as a whole, for the Correctional Institutions that invest time and energy to make a program of this magnitude a success and for all of the individuals themselves that grab this opportunity and turn it into something very special that an outsider like me will probably never be able to grasp in totality.
I arrived and anxiously awaited the opportunity to get to the visiting room where the PAWS Appreciation Banquet was going to be held. (PAWS stands for Prisoners Assisting with Service Dogs) Once I entered, I saw a room full of handlers with their dogs and you could feel a true sense of community in the room. Other volunteers, staff, the Warden, program trainer….everyone was there visiting and truly enjoying the opportunity! The handlers were so kind and made sure I had time to visit with both Liam and Lyric and I had to tame my excitement about seeing all of these incredible dogs getting ready for the next step in their journey towards graduation as assistance dogs! I got the opportunity to talk with some of the handlers and I asked them how they were feeling about the upcoming “event” of sending their dogs to final training. We talked about how the moments would be difficult, but they would be laced with excitement for the “final moment” of seeing their hard work being realized as the dog they trained walks across the stage with their client someday in the future. The pride they felt was palpable; the excitement in their eyes was readable; the emotion in their hearts about this partner of theirs was understandable! More than once I had to distract myself so I didn’t tear up just thinking about it!
The fun of the evening was just beginning! We were able to have a wonderful dinner with the handlers, and just enjoy conversation about the everyday things! I was able to meet the other dogs in the program-the H’s, I’s, and J’s-Helga, Huey, Hickory, Ike, Iris, Jasper….and the list continues! I sat back and watched the handlers interacting and how completely comfortable they were with a dog at their sides. I absolutely loved seeing the fosters/volunteers from the program who take the dogs on weekends to add to their socialization skills and home life and it was fabulous to see the whole group just talking and connecting through the love of dogs! The differences disappear and the similarities blossom all because of these 4 legged wonders!
We were honored to be able to hear the story of a client and how a very special assistance dog has changed her life; and while I was listening to her story, I realized that this is maybe where the journey of an inmate handler and that of a Great Start home/Puppy Raiser differs the most. Outside of prison, the dogs we choose to work with are part of our everyday lives-and a very important one at that. We put amazing amounts of energy and time into training the dogs, but we have other endeavors and things that require large portions of our time. But for these handlers, oftentimes these dogs are the majority of their schedule from the moment they wake up until they go to bed. Certainly, they are also busy with daily activities and jobs, but these dogs become their constant companions and their confidant-someone they can share their hopes and fears with. In a way, these dogs start their “assistance” journey when they come to prison; they help these inmates find peace, teamwork, success, pride, trust, hope, and joy just to name a few.
It was then time for the dog demonstrations-and what a wonderful opportunity it was!!! Watching these handlers take pride in their accomplishments was just as fun as seeing the dogs complete their tasks! They were proud of their work, but they were PROUD of their dog! They got up, introduced themselves and their dogs, and then it was so wonderful hearing them speak about some aspect of the dog program, what they were going to demonstrate, and how that applied in the assistance dog world! They talked about the importance of the tasks they were learning, free shaping and the dog’s personality in learning it! I just kept thinking “I want to have a training class with them so they can show me how they taught these dogs such incredible things!”
I know that there are sometimes struggles within prison programs in the area of teamwork; but when you think about the close proximity that these handlers have to live and the added stress of their situation I think they are doing wonderful! I watched the other handlers as one of their team was doing a demonstration and they couldn’t hide the fact that they were enjoying themselves and the success of their teammate!
They took a moment to thank their trainer, and it was very obvious how much they appreciate her! They made her a beautiful token of their appreciation, which promptly made me cry!
Towards the end of the evening, items were won through a drawing and all of the items were made by inmates. Their talent is amazing!
When the evening was over, I once again felt so lucky to be a part of this very special journey. I so enjoyed getting to talk with the handlers, seeing their accomplishments and witnessing their change along this incredible journey! They are not the same people they were when they started in this program, and THAT is why programs like this are priceless!
One thought on “Day 336-A Banquet to celebrate SUCCESS!”
Although there are many different ways prison dog programs work, if you want additional information about how some of the prison dog programs help people including the inmates and society, here’s an excerpt with some statistics:
HOW PRISON DOG TRAINING PROGRAMS WORK
Prison dog training programs pair animals with inmates who train dogs for adoption. Other training programs can prepare dogs to help people with physical or mental disabilities, to sniff out narcotics in airports or other public areas, or to track down wildlife threats at national parks. The programs can vary widely in purpose and structure.
The Wall Street Journal notes that at a women’s prison in Washington state, “offenders here earn their way into the dog program by remaining infraction-free during their incarceration.”
The dogs’ largest impact may be on the inmates. “They’re so loving, so understanding,” inmate Yolanda Pouncey said. “There are days when I come in all down on myself. But the minute that dog looks up and smiles at me, it just takes that all away.”
With dog training programs, a common scenario is that one dog is able, in a way, to rescue two people. For Robert Butterfield, serving 13 years for robbery and stealing drugs, training a stray 60-pound black-and-white pointer mix named Mickey helped him overcome shyness around other inmates. It also helped with the isolation of prison. Butterfield’s training of Mickey resulted in the family of 9-year-old Celia Dutton adopting him.
For Celia, who has Rolandic epilepsy, Mickey helped her get the sleep she needed. Infrequent seizures caused Celia to have facial tics and stomach pains from the anxiety. But with Mickey, things improved. Mickey began sleeping next to her at night, and he was there for her one night during a seizure. “He jumped on my bed and helped me not be scared anymore,” Celia said. Mickey refused to leave her side during the seizure.
BENEFITS OF DOG TRAINING PROGRAMS IN PRISON
Improvements in inmate behavior and mental health
A literature review from the Massachusetts Department of Correction found that “anecdotal reports from staff, inmates, and recipients of the service dogs are overwhelmingly positive.”
In a canine program for depressed inmates at an Oklahoma medium-security prison, “Not only did the program decrease depression among those inmates, but the rates of aggression decreased among the inmates as well.”
A service dog program at a Colorado correction center had a “positive morale boost among inmates and staff, as well as decreases in high blood pressure and anxiety in the dog handlers.”
A study of human-animal interaction found improvement in social sensitivity among prison inmates in the treatment group, while scores dropped in the control group.
In the Journal of Family Social Work, researchers found strong emotional and behavioral benefits for inmates in two Kansas prisons. “The men who train the dogs often form deep emotional bonds with the animals,” the researchers said. “It was not uncommon for men to get tears in their eyes when they spoke of giving up their dogs. Several inmates who were training small dogs, in fact, held them on their laps during our interviews; others were obviously proud of what their dogs could do and demonstrated this to us while we talked.”
“Many of those we interviewed believe that the strongest positive they receive from the program is the change it effects in their attitudes and emotions. For these men the dogs are truly therapeutic,” the researchers added. “Participants believe that the dogs help them to deal with anger, teach them patience, give them unconditional love, and simply make doing time a little easier.”
Grady Perry, a program leader at an Alabama prison, told The New York Times that the dog training unit’s incident rate is “almost nonexistent” and added that the “dog program just kind of calms everyone down.” These types of reports are common and are in part responsible for the rapid growth of prison dog training programs across the globe. “Unfortunately,” the Massachusetts Department of Correction notes, “there is virtually no systematic research on the effects of animal programs [in prisons].” More research is needed to verify and understand the extent of these trends.
Marketable skills for inmates
Inmates not only gain marketable skills by participating in dog training programs while in prison, but the programs encourage them to make use of these skills. “A lot of these guys have never been given a lot of responsibility, and this is their chance not only to be a responsible adult but a responsible citizen,” Perry said.
The responsibility inmates are taught can help them once they are no longer in prison. For some inmates, they plan on taking dog training skills with them. USA TODAY says that inmate Teddy Teshone has learned discipline through an Atlanta prison dog training program. Now, Teshone wants to be a dog trainer when he leaves the prison.
Recidivism rates decrease
The Pontiac Tribune in Michigan reports that the nationwide recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent. However, Leader Dogs for the Blind, which pairs future service dogs with inmates, has a recidivism rate of just 11 to 13 percent.
Only four of 35 inmates who completed one Georgia dog training program and were released have returned; without the program, coordinator Robert Brooks estimates the number would have been about 17. “It’s really made an impact because guys get in here and they get attached to the animal,” Brooks said. “There is someone else counting on them to make good decisions.”
A Nevada Law Journal article on a dog training program in Washington explained that the average three-year recidivism rate in the state is 28 percent, but it is only 5 percent for inmates who have participated in the program.
Improves prison rehabilitation
Prison dog training programs are part of the larger effort to rehabilitate inmates. As awareness of the programs increases, more inmates could gain a chance to train, save and bond with dogs that can, in turn, enhance inmates’ lives. At Alvernia University, the online B.A. in Criminal Justice program includes learning about important trends in corrections and rehabilitation. Graduates are prepared to help make a difference in corrections, law enforcement, security and other criminal justice fields.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the savings gained by dog training programs justify the lack of systematic evidence for the programs’ benefits. Not only is the cost for dog training much less in prisons than typical dog training programs, but prison programs are more effective due to the additional time inmates spend with dogs.
A California prison told Capital Public Radio that the program has “a much higher success rate with puppies that are raised in prisons than we do in the general population.”
People in homes who train dogs for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program in Michigan have a 40 percent success rate. Puppies raised by prisoners have a 70 percent success rate.
A New York program, Puppies Behind Bars, has been more successful than traditional training. The program had an 87 percent success rate, compared to 50 percent for dogs trained by volunteers in the public.