Missouri Puppies for Parole program - what happens when dogs go to prison
Since 2010, selected inmates from Missouri's state prisons have been working to train homeless dogs from area shelters. The Puppies for Parole program benefits everyone, from dogs, to inmates to society in general.
- Inmates and homeless dogs - the outcasts of society
- What is Puppies for Parole?
- How does it work?
- Who benefits from the program?
- How is Puppies for Parole funded?
- How can I adopt a dog?
Inmates and homeless dogs - the outcasts of society
There is nothing quite like the sound of a prison door closing. That hollow bang echoes with finality, reminding those who are inside that there is no way out. Men and women who are doing time because of choices they made find themselves separated from loved ones and may have feelings such as dread, panic, depression, isolation, fear and regret. In a setting such as this, there is little opportunity for physical contact, such as hugging, and very few ways to deal with negative emotions in a healthy manner. Many prisoners mask their anxieties by acting tough. An abused or abandoned dog often experiences similar feelings. A frightened canine is likely to dart away from a person attempting to befriend it, although deep inside, both the prisoners and the dogs long for the same thing. They desire loving companionship, and to feel as though they have a worthwhile purpose. Several years ago, the Missouri Department of Corrections launched the Puppies for Parole program, which helps resolve some of these issues for both inmates and unwanted dogs.
The concept of using inmates to train homeless shelter dogs is accredited to Sister Pauline Quinn, and the project was initiated at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women in 1981. Since that time, hundreds more prisons have adopted their own version of the program, which has been deemed a huge success.
What is Puppies for Parole?
Puppies for Parole was begun in Missouri on February 1, 2010, with two dogs taking up residence at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. In October of the same year, just a few months after the inception of the program, Puppies for Parole received the 2010 Governor's Award for Quality and Productivity in the Innovation category. Currently, nineteen of Missouri's twenty prisons are involved in the program, with over 1,500 canines being trained behind bars. The only state facility that does not participate is Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center. Inmates usually do not stay at that site long enough to become involved.
After being processed through diagnostics and "hitting a camp", state prison inmates are taken through orientation. Besides becoming acquainted with rules and procedures, they are also given information about the Puppies for Parole program. Being a handler is a volunteer position, and there are qualifications an inmate must meet in order to work with a dog. Requirements include not having any animal or sex abuse charges and no conduct violations within the facility for the past 90 days. Two inmates are assigned to each dog, and both are responsible for training and making sure the animal's daily needs are met.
How does it work?
Although the exact routines may vary in the different Missouri facilities, the basic structure is that the dog, which is brought from a local, partnering animal shelter, lives with the two handlers. The animal becomes accustomed to human contact and companionship as it is groomed and cared for by these men or women. Records are kept of the dog's activities and progress. Twice a week, a professional dog trainer comes to the facility, and works with the inmates and animals for about an hour or hour and a half. The prisoners are taught the correct way to implement training methods during that time. After completion of the program, which ranges from eight to twelve weeks, some dogs are sent elsewhere for further training that will enable them to become service dogs. Other dogs are taken back to their respective shelters, where, due to their training, they have become more adoptable.
Graduation day for the dogs is a big event. Both handlers are in attendance, and if the dog has already been spoken for, the new adoptive owners are also present. The dog must pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test, which is usually conducted by personnel from the shelter. During the testing, the handler is allowed to talk to the dog in a soothing manner and offer praise. The exam consists of ten steps:
1. The animal must allow a friendly stranger to approach the handler and carry on a conversation without showing resentment or shyness or breaking position.
2. The dog must allow a friendly stranger to touch and pet it without showing resentment or shyness.
3. The dog must allow the testing administrator to examine it for cleanliness and to brush and groom it.
4. The handler walks the dog on a loose lead through a course of turns and stops, and must demonstrate control over the dog throughout.
5. The handler must walk the dog past at least three people, and the dog may not show any signs of over-exuberance, shyness or resentment and must not jump on anyone.
6. The dog must follow “sit” and “down” commands, and stay in place when told.
7. The dog must come when called by the handler.
8. The dog is approached by another handler and dog, and the dog being evaluated must show no more than casual interest in the other dog.
9. The animal is subjected to a distraction, such as a chair being dropped, a crate rolling past, or a jogger running by. The dog must not show any sign of panic or aggression, and may not bark or attempt to run away.
10. The dog must allow a friendly stranger to hold its leash for approximately three minutes while the handler disappears from sight. The dog should not continually bark, whine or pace during that time.
Once the dogs pass the test, they are given up by the handlers, either to the new owners, or to shelter personnel. The handlers pass along the record books, which may also list other information about the dogs, such as likes or dislikes. Some handlers choose to write a personal message in the books, and the handlers may also speak at the ceremony if they wish.
Who benefits from the program?
There is no doubt that this is a beneficial program, for all involved. George A. Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said, "My original vision for Puppies for Parole was to save healthy dogs from euthanization by matching them with offender handlers who would also benefit from the program by having to care for something outside of themselves. The program has achieved this and so much more. We now have placed some of our dogs with those who have special needs such as disabled individuals, veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, autistic children and long-term care facilities. As the program continues to grow, the possibilities are endless."
Missouri prison inmates have trained over 1,300 dogs that have since been placed in forever homes. Many of these animals would have been euthanized if not for the program. The presence of dogs at the prisons affects everyone, not just the handlers. When training is not taking place, other inmates are welcome to pet the dogs, and many are heartened by the contact. Since Puppies for Parole is not funded by general state revenue, inmates may make a donation to the program when ordering from the canteen. Any inmate may also purchase a Puppies for Parole t-shirt that helps support the program, and these shirts are proudly worn at Missouri facilities.
The handlers benefit from the experience in many ways. Besides learning usable skills, they are also exercising responsibility, and giving something back to the community. Since handlers may not have conduct violations, it also provides an incentive for inmates to maintain good behavior. Although no statistics are available yet, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, from the University of Missouri-Columbia, is currently performing a study on the Puppies for Parole program to determine its effect on inmate behavior and the recidivism rate.
An inmate at the Tipton Correctional Center who has recently become a canine handler said that he wanted to get involved because he loves dogs, and he felt that the program would help him to keep his mind off where he was. When asked if working with the dog made doing time easier, he replied, "Absolutely". He then added, "No matter what kind of a day I'm having, when I walk back into my cell and see her, it puts a smile on my face". This inmate feels that working with the dog is helping him to become a better person because he is forced to own up to the responsibility of caring for his dog, and the program gives him some much-needed structure. This inmate's bunkie, who is the dog's other handler, has been involved in the program for six weeks. He spoke of the challenges of training the dogs, saying that it requires a lot of patience. He said that they have to find a way to communicate with the dog, and help it understand exactly what is expected of it. He also added that, although it was not the case with their particular dog, many canines in the program have been abused and neglected, and come in "with their tail between their legs". He said that these dogs must learn to adapt to humans before they can begin training. Both inmates agreed that the hardest challenge they will face is yet to come. It will take place at the graduation ceremony, when they have to say goodbye to the dog they are training. However, both feel that it will have been worth it. They will receive a new dog within a week or so later.
How is Puppies for Parole funded?
The bulk of the funding for the program comes from the partnering organizations, with help from inmate contributions and public donations. All donations go directly toward supplies or veterinary care for the dogs. Anyone wishing to donate to the Puppies for Parole program may do so by sending a check or money order to:
Puppies for Parole
Lenny Lenger, Comptroller
Missouri Department of Corrections
P.O. Box 236
Jefferson City, MO 65102
Donations can also be made online at http://doc.mo.gov/DAI/P4P_Donations.php.
How can I adopt a dog?
The dogs trained by the program are available at local animal shelters. A list of the participating shelters is available at https://web.mo.gov/doc/PuppiesForParolePublic/puppyListAction.do?method=shelterList, and the available dogs are listed at https://web.mo.gov/doc/PuppiesForParolePublic/searchAction.do?method=load. More information about the program can be obtained at http://doc.mo.gov/DAI/P4P.php.
Dogs have long been referred to as man's best friend, and those who are comforted by them while incarcerated are sure to agree.