Ohio Prisoners Train Shelter Dogs

What a great way to retrain the men and the dogs! Thanks to the Akron Beacon Journal for this day brightener! This prison program is...


Prisoners Give Back Through Dog Training

Luna and inmate John Smith

What a great way to retrain the men and the dogs!

Thanks to the Akron Beacon Journal for this day brightener!

This prison program is for dogs
And for the inmates, too. Community service option encourages good behavior
By Rick Armon
Beacon Journal staff writer

Inmate John W. Smith kneels on the concrete prison floor.

He’s almost at eye level with the two small dogs in front of him.

“Wave goodbye,” he says in a sing-song voice to Ernie, a shepherd mix puppy.

Ernie puts his paw in the air, wiggling it up and down. Smith, 36, who’s serving time for murder, pulls out a treat as a reward.

“I love dogs. I love the atmosphere of training dogs,” he says. “People are harder to work with actually than dogs.”

Smith is one of hundreds of Ohio inmates working with dogs through the state prison system’s community service dog programs. Since the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction started allowing inmates at one prison to train dogs in 1991, the program has expanded to 28 state facilities. Today, there are more than 400 dogs living with inmates in Ohio prisons while waiting to be adopted or put into use as service animals for the disabled.

Chihuahuas. Great Danes. Boxers. Collies. Golden retrievers. Mastiffs. Terriers. Eskies. Greyhounds. All kinds of breeds and thousands of dogs have passed through Ohio prisons over the last 15 years.

“It’s one of the best programs in our system,” said Wanda Suber, who oversees the programs statewide for the prison system. “The dogs have become so popular that they’ve outdistanced some of the other (community service) things we do.”

Prison officials, inmates, animal groups and a researcher who studied prison dog programs say the programs benefit not only the inmates, but also the prisons and the many abused and abandoned dogs that otherwise would be destroyed. Prisoners are more well-behaved, knowing that any infractions mean they lose their companion. The dogs are therapeutic for inmates struggling with depression or boredom. The animals break down barriers between the staff and prisoners. And the programs provide a positive bridge between the community and institutions.

“Prison administrators have more and more and more inmates and fewer ways to keep them busy and these programs do this and in a more meaningful way than making corrugated boxes or working in the kitchen,” said Dana Britton, a sociology professor at Kansas State University who studied three dog programs in Kansas prisons.

She estimated that there are more than 150 prison dog programs in the United States, with others in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Italy.

Here’s how the programs work in Ohio: An outside agency — from humane societies to groups that train dogs for the disabled — hooks up with the prison system and delivers the dogs. At Mansfield Correctional Institution, which has one of the largest programs in the state, that’s the Ashland Humane Society and Team Greyhound Adoption of Ohio Inc.

No breeds considered aggressive — such as pit bulls — are permitted.

The inmates learn to train the animals. (Sit. Don’t poop there. Don’t chew up my shower flip-flops. Basic obedience.) The Mansfield inmates attend training classes twice a week. And they care for the dogs until they are adopted. Meanwhile, the dogs sleep in cells with the inmates and follow them everywhere.

When the dogs need to do their business, the inmates take them for walks on the grounds. If the dog needs to go at night when the inmates are locked in their cells, the dog goes in the cell. (The prisons set aside some living quarters for inmates who are allergic to dogs.)

Medical bills are paid by humane societies or other dog groups. Food, leashes, bowls and treats are either donated or purchased by the inmates, so there’s no cost to state taxpayers. That leaves little room for public criticism, Britton said.

The mere presence of the dogs has made a major difference in attitudes within the Mansfield facility, said Roma Paulson, who oversees the Mansfield program, which began in 1998.

The dogs have a calming effect on the institution, she said. It’s difficult to walk by a puppy and not smile or reach down for a pat on the head — whether you’re a jaded corrections officer or a hardened inmate.

“It’s a spark of normalcy (for the inmate),” Paulson said. “I can’t decide what I eat. I can’t decide what I wear. I can’t decide where I go. I can’t visit with my family, but I can have a dog. And I can have all the love it can give me.”

Because there are a limited number of dogs, there also are a limited number of inmates who serve as trainers. Sex offenders may not participate, and inmates must be free of infractions for at least six months. The waiting list at Mansfield Correctional is several legal pages long. Openings occur mainly because an inmate has been released from prison.

The inmates aren’t paid, but the time spent training counts toward community service.

The prisoners say they learn responsibility and patience. In some cases, it helps them deal with anger and depression. The dogs also keep inmates occupied so the time goes by faster.

“It gives me a way to express love for another being in a positive manner,” 42-year-old Scott Rhodes of Akron said during one of the training sessions.

Rhodes, who is serving time for aggravated robbery, enjoys training greyhounds.

“I feel like they’ve had a hard life and haven’t been treated well,” he said.

The inmates develop deep relationships with the dogs. Some have even adopted them after their release.

“One of the things I saw when I came in is guys who are never going home walking up to a dog and completely melting,” said Andrew Pursley, 36, of Crestline, who’s in prison for aggravated robbery and drug possession.

Suber added: “Dogs will listen. They won’t judge you.”

It’s also emotional for the inmates when the dogs are adopted and leave their care after spending 24 hours a day with them for six weeks, six months or even longer. About 1,000 dogs have been adopted through Mansfield since the program began there.

“We’re talking guys who are murderers and have committed some of the most heinous crimes, and they will cry when their dog leaves,” Paulson said.

The key is not to get too attached and realize you’re training someone else’s pet, inmates said.

“I’m happy that they are going home,” said Scott Smith, 29, of Canal Fulton, who’s serving time for engaging in corrupt acts, aggravated robbery and other charges. “I have to get them ready for the real world.”

John Smith, of Warren, who helps teach other inmates to become trainers at Mansfield, keeps photos of every dog he’s trained — 32 in all. At one time, he had three dogs in his cell, which he shares with another inmate.

“I’m a true dog lover,” he said. “I’d prefer to have six dogs and no cellie.”

The dog programs reduce misbehavior by inmates because prisoners must be good to continue serving as trainers.

But the lessons learned probably don’t reduce recidivism because the dog programs are therapeutic and not treatment, said Shelley Johnson Listwan, an assistant professor in Kent State University’s Department of Justice.

“If we’re trying to say that having inmates train dogs will reduce the probability of committing crimes in future, that’s somewhat naive,” she said. “You’re not really changing who the inmate is or why he or she got into crime.”

Team Greyhound has about 40 dogs housed at five state prisons. It’s difficult to find foster homes for greyhounds making the transition from racing to a family setting, said Janet Buck, vice president of the nonprofit group. The dogs are raised on farms and then shipped to race tracks, so they don’t know anything about living in a home.

They need to learn basic obedience and what to do when they encounter such foreign things as stairs and slippery floors. The prison program eases that drastic change, she said.

“A lot of people look for prison-trained dogs because they are trained,” Buck said.

The prison program also is vital for the Ashland County Humane Society, which doesn’t have a facility of its own and wouldn’t be able to take in dogs without Mansfield Correctional’s help.

“We’d be devastated if we lost it,” said Rhonda Hofer, vice president of the group.

The dogs are treated well and it’s not stressful for them to be behind bars, prison officials and dog groups said. It’s actually less stressful than being in a cage in a pound, they said.

“Where else are they going to get 24-hour service and hundreds of people to love them?” Paulson asked.

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