The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people according to the most recent Prison Policy Initiative Report. Approximately 3.3 million dogs enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year, according to the ASPCA.
These two very different problems in our country seem to reach a crossroads with the inclusion of inmate trained shelter dog programs in correctional facilities across the nation. With inmates helping to train dogs available for adoption, the dogs are benefiting and so are the inmates. With the advantages associated with these programs, shelters and prisons are coming together all across the country to promote these programs and help dogs find homes and inmates find purpose.
Inmate Trained Shelter Dogs
Inmate trained shelter dog programs exist in many parts of the U.S., although many of them have different aspects to them. Dogs that are in shelters ready to be euthanized, dogs that have behavioral issues, or dogs that are having issues being adopted due to breed or age can be transferred from the shelter environment to the prison environment. In the prisons, these dogs are trained to be better candidates for adoption or trained to be therapy animals or service dogs by the inmates themselves.
At many shelters, the dogs that have been trained by inmates are highly sought after, and there are extensive waiting lists for people wanting one of these dogs. Their adoption fees are higher, which helps these training programs stay afloat.
The inmates that qualify for the dog training programs have to be infraction free and have no animal abuse history. They spend time socializing the dogs, training them on basic commands, and exercising them before returning them to the shelter for adoption a few months later. Dogs learn obedience, basic tricks, and are crate trained in many cases.
For the Dogs
For these dogs, going from being on a list to be euthanized (in some cases) to being on the fast track for adoption is truly saving their lives. Many dogs that have issues in a shelter setting are dogs that are hyper and have issues listening to commands, and the inmate programs can help to solve that problem by noting what each dog needs in order to be calm and by training them for obedience. Pit bulls are also one of the most common breeds in our shelters and one of the breeds with the worst reputation. Fortunately, inmates know a thing or two about issues with reputation and really show the affectionate and intelligent side of the pit bulls they teach and care for.
Some dogs don’t do great in a shelter environment and thrive in a working environment – especially the hyper breeds that tend to be overlooked or returned in the adoption process. In the inmate program, the dogs are being taught and utilized in a way that will save their lives and help them find the perfect family. Whether they are being trained for adoption, as a service animal, or as a therapy animal, they’ve basically been removed from any risk of euthanasia.
For the Inmates
Many inmates who take part in the training of these shelter dogs may argue with you on who is saving who in the training process. In truth, the animals used are also working as therapy animals for the inmates training them. Dogs offer comfort, unconditional love, and no judgement – a few things that inmates struggle with in an attempt to rehabilitate. Inmates tend to relate to abandoned, abused, or neglected shelter dogs and feel a connection to helping them succeed and get adopted into a better life despite their beginnings.
Public policy changes have changed a ton of things about the judicial system, such as redefining which offenses are punishable by a prison sentence, which has lowered the amount of inmates in correctional facilities across the country. In order to maintain that momentum, programs like these are helping the community as well as the inmate. Inmates are not only showing better behavior within their walls in connection to the dogs, they are also learning responsibility, patience, and persistence. They are also learning a marketable skill to utilize outside the prison walls in order to have a better chance of staying out of the prison system.
Types of Training
The programs across the country that involve inmates and animals vary based on need. Some facilities take requests for training each shelter animal such as learning how to swim in a pool, training on being friendly to chickens, or training tied to certain ailments. Specialized training like the training required to turn a dog into a therapy animal or a dog meant to aid those with vision impairment or autism not only boosts how marketable the dog is, but also how marketable the inmate is. Some facilities focus on shelter dogs that are high risk in order to make a dent in the population of animals euthanized every year.
Dogs can also be trained as PTSD animals for wounded veterans, some trained to detect explosives, and some are trained in tracking. Some facilities focus on at-risk breeds and some focus on retired racing dogs, but every program focuses on the connection between inmate and creature. These inmates are going from being a problem for society to giving back to society, and in that equation, no one loses. Other programs include similar tactics with cats, horses, and wildlife reserves with similar principles.
Many inmates have to work as an important aspect of their incarceration, and having them work with animals is a genius idea to give back to the community while helping to rehabilitate inmates. The fight to keep dogs off the street and to encourage adoption is exhausting, and these inmates are playing a valuable role in that fight. With so many animals euthanized and so many people incarcerated, it’s a great resource to blend together in order to do some good. A dog can offer an inmate valuable help for their mental health and happiness behind bars while the inmate offers the training that helps a dog get adopted. The relationship between the two is pretty balanced – a life for a life.
Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in beautiful Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree in 2012 from the University of Montana. She is passionate about animal rights, bad television, and white wine. She is a volunteer at Simply Cats in Boise.