Once upon a time there was a pup named Chance. Tail between his legs and trembling with fear, there he sat on the cold concrete, wondering what he’d done to deserve this life. He looked over to his questionable cellmate, Spike, for answers, which came in the form of a growl. Backing off, Chance decided to get used to his new life.
Chance’s fate was about to change, thanks to Gayle Woods of Tucson, Ariz., and the Second Chance Prison Canine Program (Second Chance). And so was mine.
Founded in January 2002 by Woods, Second Chance is one of more than 100 programs modeled after the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP), the first program in which inmates trained shelter dogs to be service (or assistance) animals for people with disabilities. Located at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women (WSCCW) in Gig Harbor, PPPP was formed in 1981 with the help of Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun who wanted to help inmates give back to the community.
PPPP’s mission is threefold: to rehabilitate offenders by offering vocational skills, to rescue unwanted shelter dogs and to train these dogs to help people with disabilities, said Susie McGehee, a PPPP training coordinator.
After discussions with Quinn and people at other prison pet programs, Woods started meeting with a small group of volunteers to discuss organizing Arizona’s first prison dog program at the Florence Correctional Center (FCC). (Woods has multiple sclerosis and relies on her self-trained service dog, Satchmo, when her MS flares up or she becomes fatigued.) Many meetings with prison staff members encouraged Warden Frank Luna to open the medium-security institution’s doors to Second Chance.
These programs usually rescue shelter dogs between 1 and 3 years old, but younger or older dogs are sometimes selected, depending on their personalities. Dogs chosen for the programs must be easygoing, dependable and willing to work. Timid or aggressive dogs are avoided. Mixed breeds make excellent service dogs, especially those mixed with labrador or golden retriever.
|The author tries working with a border collie mix, Dash, during a class session. Photo by James S. Wood|
Before adopting a dog, both Woods and McGehee perform a temperament test on the animal to give them a better idea of its suitability for service animal work. Initially sent to live with foster parents, these dogs are socialized, exposed to various environments and further evaluated.
Turned into the shelter in Tucson as a stray, Chance was bailed out by Woods in January 2004. A 5-month-old black labrador mix, he was the youngest dog chosen for Second Chance and had come into the program at least six months after the other dogs. But with his easygoing nature and ability to learn quickly, there was no question that he was made to be a service dog.
Last but not least, Chance joined Loki, Buddy, Sam and Dash to complete Second Chance’s first group of dogs-in-training.
It takes a village
Second Chance is run by a core group of 20 volunteers, including transporters, foster parents, puppy socializers, and even the veterinarian and trainer.
Second Chance’s first group of dogs stayed with their foster parents for one to three weeks. Now the dogs stay with families for a longer time because it can take at least three weeks before the dogs’ true personalities show through. While in their foster homes, the dogs are taken to the veterinarian where they’re examined, immunized, and spayed or neutered.
All prison pet programs select inmates according to strict guidelines. Offenders can’t have a history of child or animal abuse.
"They understand from the beginning that this is not a right to participate, but that their behavior has earned them the privilege to participate in this type of program," Woods said. "They know that if they do not comply with the rules and regulations they can be suspended, and they have been."
Most guidelines have to do with the safety of the dogs and the program’s volunteers. Of FCC’s 1,600 inmates, only 12 were chosen to participate in Second Chance’s first session in 2003.
|Inmates work on socializing the newcomer, Harper. Photo by James S. Wood|
These men care for and train dogs to retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn lights on and off, pull wheelchairs, provide stability or balance, and remove articles of clothing. Second Chance Trainer Jay Smith, who owns Community Dog Training in the Tucson area, volunteers his time to teach inmates to train the dogs using a positive reinforcement technique called clicker training.
Service dogs in training remain in the prison setting for anywhere from nine months to two years, depending on their level of improvement.
Sometimes after less than a month it’s obvious which dogs aren’t going to make it as service dogs because they’re too hyper or aggressive with other dogs. These "paroled pets" are adopted out as pets. Chance’s friend, Sam, would soon become a paroled pet.
A winning team
Matching dogs and clients (client is the term preferred by the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners) is important for a successful service dog team. Finding a good match depends on the personalities of the dog and the client so that the team works efficiently. The client’s need is also a key factor.
"If we have a dog that is going to be really good at walking next to a wheelchair but isn’t strong or solid enough to walk next to someone who needs to lean on a dog to stand it probably wouldn't be a good match," McGehee said.
Doing my time
Like other service dog organizations, prison pet programs usually have waiting lists three to five years long. Rather than a first-come first-served basis, clients are selected based on need.
I use a wheelchair because of Friedreich’s ataxia. When Chance came into my life I’d just been turned down by a California service dog organization for the second time; the dog they’d matched with me dropped out of the program for medical reasons. This was after three years on waiting lists of several organizations.
When I received a call in early May 2004 from Woods, who was looking for a match for Chance, I quickly agreed to a last-minute trip to FCC, where I’d meet my future service dog. Like Chance, I’d entered the program late.
|Chance opens the refrigerator with ease. Photo by Jamie Williams|
Even though I was with a group of volunteers and three other clients, I must admit I was a little uneasy cruising down the prison hallways, passing big men in orange jumpsuits. I felt better once we entered the small library and met the guys and their charges.
The first half hour we played a positive reinforcement game where we (the clients) tried to get volunteering inmates (acting as stand-ins for dogs) to complete simple tasks (opening the door, turning on the light or picking up a book) by marking the desired behavior with an audible click from a handheld device. (Before this point I had no idea what a clicker was.) After taking turns at the clicker game, we met with our inmate trainers and prospective dogs.
Chance’s two main inmate trainers, Alan Newby and Shay Boziel, worked with me for the next hour and a half, teaching me the proper way to instruct Chance.
Over the next five weeks, our group traveled to the prison to work with the inmate trainers and dogs, went on outings with our dogs and even took them home for a weekend of bonding. With help from Second Chance volunteers, Chance and I were able to graduate with the rest of our class in June 2004.
Unfortunately, of Second Chance’s four client-dog teams, three broke up because of the client’s medical or personal issues. Dash was paroled, but Loki and Buddy found new clients right away.
Chance liked his new home — complete with lots of treats and a tiny West Highland white terrier to terrorize. (They soon became friends.)
His specialties are retrieving dropped items, opening and closing the refrigerator, and slamming my chair’s footrests into position. In late summer, he also began going to work with me at MDA every day. I was surprised that such a young (10 months) dog would lie down and let me work until I needed his help, mostly to pick up things I’ve dropped.
Second Chance’s dedicated volunteers continue to help me work through any problems or potential hazards with Chance. Smith showed me how to get Chance to pick up paper without shredding it and to stay out of the swimming pool unless invited. Barking at other dogs is still an ongoing struggle, but Second Chance is always available to offer advice or assistance.
Other problems I’m currently having at work stem from my reluctance to enforce the universal service dog rule — please don’t pet me. Everyone from Second Chance warned me about that, but it took Chance ignoring me to make me realize why there’s such rule. Why should he listen to me giving him commands, when he can get attention from my animal-loving co-workers?
I spread the word in the building, and people respected the new guidelines.
If his progress isn’t going as fast as I’d like, it’s because I’m not working with him enough. When I get home from work in the evenings, I’m exhausted, and on weekends I’m recovering from the week.
This brings up an important point: Consider your schedule and energy level before getting a service dog. Dogs aren’t robots. Keeping them finely tuned involves work on your part.
Chance and I haven’t yet completed Assistance Dogs International’s Public Access Certification Test, which ensures that the team is appropriate to be in public. We still have things to work on, but I’m confident it won’t be long.
Second Chance is currently training its second set of dogs. Since the program is fairly new, volunteers are still working on getting more details in writing, improving the selection process, lengthening training time, choosing more inmate trainers and expanding to prisons closer to Tucson.
"[We’re] trying to take what we’ve learned and grow from that and make changes that are needed to make this a really good program," Woods said.
Other prison programs
Some prison pet programs take in shelter dogs, and inmates work on behavioral problems and basic obedience commands until they’re adopted out as pets.
"That’s still a win-win situation because they are saving the lives of the dogs and they’re helping, hopefully, to keep these dogs from being returned [to shelters] once they’re adopted," Woods said.
Second Chance and PPPP are among the few prison service dog programs that don’t partner with freestanding service dog organizations. They also provide service dogs free of charge, but there usually is a small application fee.
California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona partners with Canine Support Teams, which means inmates train the dogs and turn them over to the organization. From there, Canine Support Teams’ staff members and volunteers facilitate the placement of the service dogs. In this case, clients pay whatever the organization usually charges. CST charges a $50 application fee, but some organizations charge for training.
Founded in 1989 by Carol Roquemore, CST in Temecula, Calif., decided to partner with CIW in order to rehabilitate inmates while meeting the needs of more clients. CST offers prison-trained dogs as well as dogs trained by the organization. Dogs can be trained more quickly in prison because inmates have a lot of time on their hands, allowing the client to receive the dog in less time. But clients don’t get to choose whether or not they get a dog from the prison.
"The prison environment can be tough, although we have support from most of CIW staff," said Roquemore, who admits that some staff members don’t want dogs in their prison. "If the dog isn’t perfectly behaved, we’re asked to remove [him or her]. And all dogs have their moments!"
Most of the prison programs that partner with organizations use donated purebred puppies because they know the lineage of the puppy and that the breed makes for good service dogs.
There’s no denying that all prison pet programs share a similar goal of offering hope to both people and animals. To find out more about these programs or to see if there’s one in your area, visit www.pathwaystohope.org.
Also see "A New Leash on Life."
Assistance Dogs International
Listing of service dog organizations
Community Dog Training
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners
Pathways to Hope
Listing of prison pet programs
Washington State University
(509) 335-1303 or (509) 335-4569