Dogs Serving As Students and Teachers For Inmates in Florida Prison System

WEWAHITCHKA, Florida — The dogs roaming the grounds of this rural prison can sit, stay, heel and come on command. What else can they do? They can teach.

Just ask Popeye Lyon, an inmate who spent eight weeks with “Pluto”:

“My confidence in myself has grown. I face each day wondering what I can accomplish before the sun goes down. I feel I can face any situation presented to me, and deal with it appropriately.”

Lyon is among dozens of medium-security inmates at the Gulf County Correctional Institution Forestry Camp who have volunteered to participate in DAWGS In Prison, a program of the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society in cooperation with the Florida Department of Corrections.

Funded in part by a $10,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund’s Port St. Joe Capacity Building Fund, DAWGS has a dual mission: to increase the adoption rate of dogs at the Humane Society’s shelter, and to help inmates develop skills that will enhance their employability and citizenship upon release.

“The program teaches the inmates self-control,” said Lt. Margaret Hayes, one of the officers at the prison. “It keeps them busy, keeps their mind occupied.”

But it does much more than that, according to Correctional Officer Donna Haddock, who works closely with the prisoners in the program.

“When these guys first come in here, they are hard, they have a lot of walls around them,” she said. “But when they get involved with the dogs, their physical presence changes, they soften, their faces soften, their whole demeanor changes. It turns them into mush. Then maybe they’ve got their hearts and heads in the right place.”

There is social science and structure, as well as emotion, behind the DAWGS program.

First, inmates must submit a formal application to participate in the program. They then face a review and interview process not unlike what they will encounter when applying for a job. Once accepted into the program, they start on the bottom rung of a complex hierarchy, not unlike the organizational chart of an ordinary workplace.

Each dog is supported by a team of three to four inmates. At the bottom of the heirarchy are the Caretakers, who bathe the dog and keep its kennel clean. The Handler helps with exercise and recreation. And the Trainer is just that, the one who trains the dog, but also the one who trains the other inmates on his team.

“Getting one inmate to listen to another – that’s huge,” said Haddock.

With 12 dogs in training at any one time, the teams are grouped into clusters, led by a Team Leader. who not only trains his own dog and manages his own team, but oversees the work of the teams in his cluster.

Thus, an inmate can enter the program as a Caretaker, cleaning kennels and washing dogs, and progress all the way to Team Leader. In the process, inmates gain a wealth of knowledge — much of which is imparted by the dogs themselves.

Anyone who has tried to train an animal knows that the experience trains the trainer as much as the animal. The successful trainer must be a master of self-discipline and self-control; of clear and consistent communication, of patience, and of smart strategy.

As inmate Thomas Howard, a team leader, works with Apollo, a German Shepherd mix, he uses a light touch on the leash, and quiet, barely audible, commands accompanied by hand signals.

“It’s all about timing and communication,” Howard said. “Timing and communications – it’s even more important when dealing with people.”

Inmate Frank Gonzalez, also a team leader, is proud to be working with Fiona, a mid-sized female who came to the program in extremely poor health, underweight and covered with sores. Her team was challenged to bring her back to health as well as train her. Today, Fiona is robust and energetic, and quick to respond to commands.

“Structure, responsibility and patience – that’s what this program teaches you,” Gonzalez said. “We need structure and the dogs need structure. We are responsible for the dogs but the dogs are responsible for doing their job, too. And we have to be patient with the dogs, but the dogs also have to be patient with us.”

The inmates have just eight weeks to complete the dogs’ training, teaching them to heel, sit, lay, stay, come and walk with control. Dogs also learn sociability or “good citizen” skills – not to jump on people, to remain quiet even though there are other dogs around, and to tolerate newcomers with odd objects like purses and briefcases.

Humane Society volunteers provide support, helping the inmate-trainers develop their training skills and being available to assist as they work with the dogs.

At the end of eight weeks, the prison hosts a “graduation ceremony,” to which the public is invited. Top dog awards are given, and the dogs move on their new homes. These public ceremonies — as well as publicity surrounding the program — have enhanced the program’s effect on the Humane Society and on the larger Gulf County community.

For the Humane Society, DAWGS has led to an increase in adoptions — it is not unusual for more than 50% of the “class” of 12 dogs to have been chosen for adoption prior to the end of the eight-week program.

It also has resulted in an increase in donations, critical for the society, which receives no government funding. The adoption fee is $195, and the cost of food, kennels, equipment and health care easily exceeds $200 per dog for the eight-week training program.

And in rural Gulf County, where the prison is a major employer, the program has changed many people’s perspective. “You hear comments in the community and you see it on people’s faces,” said Haddock, who lives in nearby Port St. Joe. “It changes the way they think about these inmates.”

But these changes are secondary to what Haddock sees happening with the inmates themselves. She tells the story of a Trainer and a Handler on the same team who got into a power struggle over who was the better man with the dog.

“I took each one aside for some one-on-one counseling, and explained that their conflict was not in the best interest of the dog. If they could not resolve their differences, they would have to be removed from the team. That evening, I was told, the two men had a long conversation, followed by another long conversation the next morning. Then the two came to see me together and said they had worked out their differences and had decided to work together in the interest of the dog. They put the interest of something else ahead of their own interests.”

Lessons such as these hold promise for the inmates’ future.

“I’ll tell you what I have learned from this program,” an eager inmate volunteered during a recent visit: “If these dogs can learn to behave in eight weeks, then I can learn to behave in eight weeks. It just takes training and practice.”

DAWGS In Prison is one of several similar programs operated in cooperation with the Florida Department of Corrections. To learn more visit http://www.dc.state.fl.us/apps/utopia/learn.html.