Working within the prison system to benefit both the inmate and the dog.

In Collaborative Effort with: 

Reaching out, even to a small puppy, is often not something the inmates are used to. Yet, when the puppy and their handler meet, their lives are touched by each other in many ways and it is an awesome thing to see. Unconditional love and acceptance have often been absent from the inmate’s lives before our dogs step in to show the way. Obviously, the trust learned in bonding works both ways and the puppies learn to work one on one with a human partner, which they will continue to do after placement.

Training Service Dogs is quite costly. The result of the collaboration is that we can provide prison inmates a means of rehabilitation and then bring independence to children with disabilities who need their skills. The trainers are the inmates who have earned a high merit status and the right to have the dogs with them in their cells. Each cell has two inmates who become a training team. The dogs live in the cell with the two inmates and are to be with one of the team members at all times. The inmates attend classes run by 4 Paws Training Director, Jeremy Dulebohn, and learn how to work with their dogs to ready them for advanced service dog training.

One of the great things about Mission Pawsible is that inmates not only give back to the world they once “took” from but they also learn a new skill, one which may someday allow them to get a job on the outside where they can continue to give back to their community and live a life much different from the one they had before coming to prison.

The inmates know who is getting their dog, not the details but the age of the child and how the dog needs to help them. They work to make sure the dog has appropriate behavior and tolerance for the things children do. Some of the inmates who have been in the program a long time work to train advanced skills that will give the child more freedom and independence; and they even train the dogs some fun tricks the child can show off as they talk to the people and children who come to meet their dogs!

One of the inmates shared this with us, “The #1 reason, and the most important reason I joined the 4 Paws program is because I want to give something positive back to people who really need it. Doing that gives me self satisfaction as well. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who sit around and do negative stuff or nothing at all with their time in prison I would like to thank everyone that makes the 4 Paws program possible.”

Another had this to say, “The reason I like the dog program here at WCI – I could get a dog that is going to an Autism kid that runs off all the time. I could teach the dog basic tracking as well as other commands and the dog will find the kid. I could get a dog that is going to a kid who needs a pal. I would teach the dog basic commands and lots of tricks.

They can give you a dog and say this dog is going to be for this and you try to put yourself in that person’s shoes and how you would want the dog to be. I stay out of trouble by being in the dog program because I know if I get in trouble I can’t have a dog and I never thought that while I was in prison I would be training a dog to help people. I have been locked up for 20 years and in the dog program for 1 year. I wish it was here 20 years ago.”

We have seen some wonderful results both in the quality of the dogs we place and in the lives of the inmates who work with them. We have found that with the stress produced in prison the dogs placed develop a better ability to cope with the stress of the placement, for example since using the prison our dogs placed in the prison vs those which were trained only at 4 Paws handle the stress of placement with an Autistic child who has meltdowns easily.

The dogs in the prison visit the inmates in the mental health wings of the prisons and become accustomed to people who they easily sense as somewhat different.  In addition, our dogs placed in the prison acclimate to their new handlers during client training far more quickly than those trained by a single trainer at 4 Paws because they often switch handlers at the prison. Each dog trained in the prison spends 6 weeks in and 2 weeks out rotating for socialization in public. Each time they re-enter the prison they may switch handlers or even prisons.

While the gains we see for our program are wonderful, the changes in the inmates are also amazing. We have seen big, strong, tough men with tattoos over much of their body, turn into big kids as they play with their dogs and break down and cry as they say goodbye to them. Every inmate in our program devotes every hour of every day to the dog in their care and it shows from week to week as our trainer meets with them to work on their dog training skills. In a prison, appropriate, loving contact is hard to come by and the dogs fill a void, which for some inmates has never been filled. The inmates find a comfort in their dogs that can decrease anxiety, and fill the voids left by a system in which they are locked away from their children, family, and friends.

When the inmate takes the picture we give them of the child with their new service dog, no one can dismiss the look of pride and amazement that they could make such valuable contribution when many of them never knew they had it in them to make any good contribution to society.

It is that look that seals for us, here at 4 Paws, the knowledge that the inmates don’t just play the game of training in order to benefit from having a dog with them, they truly give of their hearts and their spirits both to the dog and to the child the dog will be placed with and in doing so they cannot help but grow.

While some of our inmates may never see life outside prison, some will go out and they will take with them the self-esteem and confidence to know they can be somebody who lives to do good in their life and to make a difference. We believe that they can and they will.