A prison inmate, an abandoned shelter puppy and a disabled person – on the surface, the three just don't seem to have a lot in common. But in prisons across the United States, they are being connected by threads of kindness, hard work and the desire for a productive life.
Since 1981, inmates have been training and caring for service and guide dogs to assist the blind and disabled. The program is called Prison Pet Partnerships, and it is the brainchild of Sister Pauline Quinn, a nun who first launched the program at the Washington State Correctional Center for Woman.
The success of the program – for inmates, the dogs and the disabled – is abundantly clear. More than 600 dogs have been placed since the program began at the Washington prison. Correspondingly, released inmates who trained in the program have an extremely low recidivism rate. Only one inmate from the program has ever been returned to Washington State prison (on a parole violation).
The dogs themselves are saved from probable euthanasia. All dogs are chosen from local shelters, and most are in their "pre-teens" (6 months to 1 year). They usually have passed their point of puppy cuteness, but still tend to be hyper and, thus, often overlooked, explains Beth Rivard, the program's coordinator.
For the inmates, training the dogs is a practical exercise in the values of hard work, kindness, consistency and love. "This is a backdoor way to learning those life skills," notes Rivard. "They can apply these lessons to their own lives and families when they get out of here."
Besides placing service dogs, inmates also operate a boarding and grooming business for the public. The money earned is reinvested in the program. "It's a win-win-win-win situation," Rivard says.
At present, the program at the Washington Correction Center trains dogs for people with mobility issues. Some are wheelchair-bound, others need some help in getting around. The dogs are trained to turn on and off lights, retrieve specific objects on command, open and shut doors, among other things.
Since its inception, Prison Pet Partnerships have spread to other institutions in Florida, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Alaska, Kansas, Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Sister Pauline is currently setting up a similar program in California prisons.
The program isn't for every inmate. Prisoners must meet exacting qualifications to be even admitted to the program. Anyone with a history of abuse toward children or animals is excluded automatically.
Once accepted, inmates must take and pass a 3-month Pet Care Technician class, given by the American Boarding Kennels Association. They learn skills such as the physiology of dogs, first aid for pets (including CPR), grooming, pet health and wellness maintenance, kennel care, as well as customer relation skills.
When they pass the course, inmates are assigned one, sometimes two, dogs. The dogs live with the inmates in their cells. (Rivard explains that a cell usually holds four people. Instead, two inmates and two dogs, or two inmates and one dog, are housed together.)
Any major infraction of prison rules results in automatic expulsion from the program. Once expelled, prisoners cannot rejoin. Any sign of mistreatment or neglect also results in expulsion.
Good Canine Citizen Programs
The Washington prison program does not train dogs for the blind, because such dogs require a lot of work on city streets. However, some institutions provide the initial care and training a dog requires before learning how to guide the blind.
Other programs help battle the ongoing problem of pet overpopulation by training and socializing shelter animals to make them more adoptable and "keepable." In other words, the dogs are taught how to be "Good Canine Citizens." This includes sit, stay, come, heel, off, as well as learning how to behave in crowds and in front of strangers and other animals.
Sister Pauline began the program because she recognized how dogs had helped her through difficult times growing up. The program was a tough sell because at the time, few people felt comfortable allowing inmates to train dogs.
"I wanted to give something back and help people who are in institutions find meaning to their life through the dog," says Sister Pauline. "It gives the inmates the opportunity to become "other" centered while giving something back to society. People need to have purpose in their life and this gives them the chance to learns skills, to be loved unconditionally by the dog, and to give love to people who need a special dog to help them."