By Jon Bastian
In at least one prison system in the U.S., humans are not the only inmates being rehabilitated. Thanks to Colorado Correctional Industries‘ Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program (PTKCP), inmates work with rescued shelter dogs to provide them with everything from socialization to advanced training as service dogs.
All of the dogs receive basic manners and obedience training, and heeling on the lead. Many of the dogs go on to learn advanced tricks, like hand signals, and some receive confidence building through agility training.
The dogs in the program are not the only ones that benefit, though. The inmates involved learn new skills, improve their self-esteem, and earn a salary is based on their work performance. They are also eligible to earn vocational certification in canine behavior modification.
The program is privately funded through the adoption fees they receive for the dogs.
It’s not only the dogs that are transformed by the program, and documentary filmmaker Andrew Wright is documenting the huge changes that happen in both the dogs and their inmate trainers. Called Castaways, the series follows the dogs from their entry into the program and shows the profound changes in both them and their handlers.
One episode, “Esther,” chronicles the transformation of a chocolate Lab and her handler, Jason Mayo. Rescued from deplorable conditions, Esther was initially so timid and frightened that she urinated when handlers lifted her into a crate and would lie down flat and try to melt into the ground. Mayo explained that she took a lot of work — more work than any other dog he’s trained — but in the process he learned to be calm and to have empathy.
PTKCP brings together dogs and people who have been abandoned by society and, in the process, lets the dogs learn how to be dogs again and gives the people the confidence and self-esteem to feel like human beings and not just numbers. As one inmate describes it in the documentary, the program “literally saved my life.”
Wright’s goal with the documentary is to draw attention to the program in hopes that other prison systems across the country will adopt it, putting castaway people and castaway dogs together in order to save them both.
It’s not just prison inmates that the dogs are helping, though. Once they are released, they go on to change lives, whether they become loving family pets or service dogs. To cite just one of many examples, Zach Tucker, an autistic boy from Colorado Springs, tried to avoid any physical contact with humans and was unable to even hug his own mother. Three weeks after the arrival of Clyde, a graduate of PTKCP, Zach started hugging his mother again after having not done so for four years.
It’s a story of redemption, not just for Zach and Clyde, but for the convicted killer who made it possible. Christopher Vogt had been training dogs at the high-security Sterling Prison for ten years, mostly as service dogs for the disabled, but the more he learned about dog psychology, the more he began to think that they would be ideal for working with autistic children.
When he was finally given permission to try this idea, he was met with resounding success. Interestingly, he works with the dogs by behaving like an autistic child in order to teach the dogs how to respond. Now, not only is Vogt training the dogs, but he’s teaching his techniques to other prison staffers from around the country and has written and illustrated two children’s books about dogs helping autistic kids.
Because of his work with dogs, Vogt has been transferred to a minimum security facility. He is up for parole in 2018, 19 years into a 48-year sentence.
The most remarkable part of all may have been Zach’s reaction when he and his family finally brought Clyde home from prison. Because he has Asperger’s syndrome, it is difficult for Zach to understand or even recognize emotional cues from others, but as they left the prison, his mother noticed that he was crying.
According to the Denver Post, when she asked him why, Zach said, “I feel really bad that I’m taking this dog from Mr. Vogt.” Prison inmates aren’t the only ones learning empathy because of the dogs in this program.
Humanization and redemption for prisoners, comfort and assurance for adopters, and a second chance for abandoned dogs. What more could we ask for in a prison program that doesn’t cost the public a dime?
Watch the trailer for Andrew Wright’s Castaways.
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