The Pawshank Redemption: Dog Training in an Unlikely Place
By: Nicole Breanne
Cesar received a fan letter from a woman named Jhauntain Owens. Ms. Owens talked about the rescue she works for. The rescue is called A.D.O.P.T, they take in “last chance dogs” or dogs that are “too aggressive to be adopted out” and train them using Cesar’s methods. They have successfully found homes for 130 former death row animals and currently have twenty adult dogs, sixteen puppies and few cats. Did I mention that all of this takes place inside Madison Correctional Facility for Women?
A.D.O.P.T stands for “A Dog On Prison Turf” and it’s run by Jessica Bradley. The program was only supposed to have fifteen animals at a time, but Bradley just can’t say ‘no’ to an animal in need so she wound up with forty.
There are twenty-six women in this program they are all level one or level two inmates and have less than a six year sentence. Bradley told me that the women in her program have become model inmates. They have confidence in themselves, patience, and they will leave the prison with a new job skill. After I spoke with Bradley she sent me several stories written by the inmates and a few from the forever homes the rescues found through the program.
The stories ranged from heartbreaking to inspiring, from dogs too scared to go outside to Chihuahua’s with “little dog syndrome”, aggression, and the birth of several puppies. But Bradley’s girls were able to rehabilitate every single one. Remember, these dogs were all on their way to be euthanized no one was willing to give them a chance. The common theme throughout these stories was the inmates relating to the dogs. Several of them said, “I was abused just like my dog and they taught me that I can move on”.
Bradley’s program is one of many “Prison Pup” programs in the country, there’s even a prison pup program in San Quentin, which is the only prison in California with a death row and is the largest in the nation, although no “lifers” or violent offenders are allowed into the program. The California Institute for Women (CIW) also has a “prison pup” program run by Canine Support Teams, Inc. but unlike Bradley’s girls or San Quentin, some of these women are serving life sentences. CIW’s most infamous puppy trainer is Patricia Krenwinkel, a former member of the Manson Family who was convicted of seven counts of murder and given a life sentence. Krenwinkel had trained seven dogs by 2009 one of which helps a young boy with cerebral palsy. “Doing what I do, that dog can make someone’s life different and better, and wonderful” said Krenwinkel. The CIW's prison program has sixty women currently in the program and a zero reoffender rate.
But the program called “Dog Tags” takes it one step further, they don’t just save the lives of dogs—they save the lives of humans. Gloria Gilbert Stoga was reading the New York Times and had read one too many horror stories about the war in Iraq. She wanted to do something to help the Vets coming home so she started “Dog Tags”. “Dog Tags” takes dogs into prisons and has inmates train them for life with a War Veteran. Unlike CIW’s program, “Dog Tags” creates mental health service dogs—dogs that are equipped to handle owners with PTSD and panic disorders.
In addition to helping the Vets, the disabled and families who want to rescue a dog but don’t have time to train one, these programs help the inmates. The common thread in all the prisons I mentioned was the inmate’s feelings of self worth and accomplishments. One guard explains, “They’ve never had real jobs or responsibilities. This is teaching them how to do that. They’re learning a skill.”
The inmates also have a lot of time. One of the biggest problems in prison is boredom, boredom breeds trouble. But when you have a puppy—you don’t have time. Because of their situation these inmates can devote twenty-four hours to training these dogs and they do, the time and effort that these inmates put into the program is astonishing. One inmate in the “Dog Tags” program spent three months in a wheelchair to better understand his Vet’s needs and was able to customize his dogs’ training to the needs of the future owner. The service dogs are taught ninety commands, they can call 911. They are taught things like “salute” in which they give a wave to strangers helping ease awkward social situations; they learn things like “got my back” and “pop a corner” where the dog will stick its head around a corner to make sure it’s safe for their owner to walk or just keep a lookout on what’s going on behind them. It offers reassurances to these Veterans that someone is watching out for them. It also gives the inmates the chance to be teachers. When Vets come into the prison they spend time learning the commands and how to deliver them. The inmates take time to carefully instruct the new owners and inform them of their dog’s needs and routines. Even though these inmates are serving hard time they’re using that time to make life a little easier for others.
One Vet said he credits his dog with “bringing him back” from an attack, some say they were able to sleep for the first time after getting their dog, and another said, “I wouldn’t have a life right now without the dog. I went from one to two panic attacks a day to one every six months. I went from taking fifteen pills a day to three pills a day. I thought every day about suicide and then I got the dog—I feel alive. I feel like I don’t want to die, like I have a reason to live now—if not for me than for her.”