Dogs that once would have met an untimely end in Jefferson County animal shelters are now trained to be obedient house pets and even service dogs by Arkansas Department of Correction inmates serving time in the county.
This is thanks to the Paws in Prison program that was first introduced into the ADC in December 2011 and matches dogs that can be trained with inmates who have professed an interest in doing something positive for the community and who just happen to love dogs.
Paws is active at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit, the Randall Williams Correctional Facility, the Ouachita River Correctional Unit and the A.J. Hawkins Center for Women in Wrightsville.
A recent visit to Randall Williams found a group of some eight inmates and four dogs participating in a training session run by trainer Carrie Kessler with Last Chance Arkansas, a Little Rock non-profit devoted to finding homes for shelter dogs.
“We’re going to go through some basic obedience commands,” Kessler said as she set up for the session. “You’re going to have your dogs go through the sit, down and stay commands.”
First up was a beagle/hound mix from El Dorado named Gracie Lou and her trainer, Terry Mudge.
Mudge guided Gracie Lou into the confines of a hula hoop that Kessler had laid on the floor. From there the two made their way to the first stop on the course.
“Sit,” Mudge said as Gracie Lous dutifully sat down, her eyes never moving away from her trainer’s.
“Down,” Mudge said and the dog lay down with her eyes still focused upward.
“Stay,” Mudge said as he walked about 15 feet away from his canine only to find Gracie following close behind him.
“Come on Gracie Loue,” Mudge said as he guided his charge back to where she was and got her back to the down position. “Stay,” Mudge said and this time she did.
“Good girl,” Mudge said as he returned to her side and rewarded Gracie with a treat.
Mudge is clearly happy to be with this dog.
“I really enjoy it,” Mudge said. “It gives me a chance to do something with the time that I’m doing. I never thought I would be able to serve time with a dog.”
Under the terms of the program each dog is assigned to two trainers with at least one of them with the animal at all times.
“We have two trainers per dog so that when an inmate goes to the few areas where animals are prohibited the other inmate can be with it,” said ADC spokesperson Shea Wilson.
Tommy Jones is Gracie Lou’s other trainer.
“I’ve been part of the program for a week now,” Jones said. “It has taught me a lot like learning how the dogs react to things. This may even be something that I can do once I get out [of prison].”
Andrew Harp has been working with tiny yet confident terrier mix Suee from the Pine Bluff shelter for six weeks.
“She’s fun to work with,” Harp said as Suee happily dragged a toy twice as big as she was across the room. “When we first got her the best we could get her to do was stand up. Now she can do so many things on command.”
Justin Gunter has been working with standard Collie/German Shepherd mix Riley from the Pine Bluff shelter for several weeks.
“Riley had been in the pound for six months and he had heartworms when we first got him,” Gunter said. “So we had to put him on medication and he has been recovering for the past six weeks.”
Gunter said working with Riley has been a big plus in his life.
“Before this program I was a Class IV inmate [not eligible for good behavior credits] because I got into a lot of trouble,” Gunter said. “But since I’ve been working with the dogs I haven’t had any problems. Riley is the second dog that I’ve worked with. He was extremely nervous when we first got him. But now that he has been getting a lot of love and attention he is doing great.”
Kessler said that the typical length of time that any one dog is in the training program is eight weeks.
“This program truly is a win, win situation for everyone involved,” said Kessler, who has been working with the Paws program since its beginning. “From the human standpoint it engenders good behavior by the inmates and helps to teach them responsibility and compassion. It also teaches them a skill. We had one inmate who became a professional dog trainer once they were released.
“From the dog’s perspective this program has saved hundreds of canine lives,” Kessler said. “It rehabilitates the dogs. These are dogs that generally have no training and this is the number one reason that dogs are rendered to the shelter.”
Kessler said that those looking for a dog to adopt end up with a well-trained and loving dog ready to have its “forever home.”
Kessler’s work with Last Chance Arkansas also involves assessing dogs for their suitability for the prison program.
“We have a real strict set of criteria,” Kessler said. “When we assess dogs we pick dogs that are going to be good family pets with a good temperament. We also identify dogs that will make good service dogs.
“As these inmates get out we know that they are communicating with their families and teaching them about the importance of spaying and neutering,” Kessler said. “They also tell their family that when it comes to training, positive reinforcement must be used. It has far-reaching effects on animals across the state.”
Kessler said that so far the program has trained three dogs to work with autistic children.
“One of the dogs acts as a guardian for a child,” Kessler said. “The dogs improve communication skills and teaches the children compassion and responsibility.”
Kessler said that one of the dogs is being trained to be a reading dog.
“The dog is going to be placed in a public school to be a reading dog,” Kessler said. “The dog will work in the library. They sit quietly while the child reads to them. It has been proven that children benefit from this.”
Kessler said two dogs have been trained to work with people in wheelchairs.
Kessler said that her time working with the Paws in Prison Program has been very rewarding.
“I get the most amazing sense of accomplishment by working with the inmates and seeing them bloom and seeing the dogs transform,” Kessler said. “I have the job and the honor of assessing dogs in the shelter. We watch them transform. Then we get to see them in their homes. The dogs go on to be happy, good family members.”