A prison pets program provides undeniable benefits for both dogs and their handlers. But it also provides some interesting challenges. The benefits are obvious. Dogs who might never have had a chance at finding a home receive training and affection and escape euthanasia. Inmate handlers learn a skill and have the humanizing companionship of a dog. The dogs bond to their handlers — and for many dogs this is the first bond they have ever experienced. The handlers take on the important responsibility of keeping that trust strong while molding good behavior.
There are a host of differences between training a dog on the “outside” and training a dog in a prison setting. Prison dogs can be with their handlers almost 100 percent of the time, but their freedom is quite limited. They don’t have a house and yard to roam around; their home turf is a small cell shared by two men, the dog’s equipment, and the men’s belongings. This may cause a few dogs to become quite territorial about their space, partly because it’s small and easily defensible. Routine checks by corrections officers with their flashlights and jangling keys can be intimidating. The large number of men and lack of privacy and quiet can be an issue with some of the more fearful or mistrustful dogs.
Cleanliness can be a problem. A single exercise yard is provided for all of the dogs and it can be deep in mud or dust, depending on the weather. The dogs get dirty quickly. Their bedding and towels must be washed frequently, and the dogs need frequent cleanups as well. The program relies on donations of laundry detergent and dog shampoo to keep man, beast and home reasonably clean. Without these donated products, proper cleaning is impossible. Housetraining is done quickly to avoid problems. Potty times are strictly regulated because the men cannot come and go to the dog exercise area as they please. Some accommodations can be made for sick or older dogs that may need more frequent bathroom visits, but these are rare.
Feeding the program dogs is also a challenge. We ourselves may be able to find a food that works well for our dogs and continue feeding it, but in the prison program the brand and type of food changes frequently. Food is donated to the program, and there is no way to stick to any one brand or type. This can result in gastrointestinal upsets and discomfort for dogs with food allergies. Food sensitivities can add to both cleanliness and housetraining issues.
Keeping the dogs healthy is important. Attempts are made to keep a small supply of mostly over-the-counter medicines for the animals in the program, but at times the needed item isn’t available. Theoretically the shelters provide these needed items, but often it is the instructors or supervising staff that purchase over-the-counter supplies out of their own pockets. Prescribed medicines must come from a veterinarian, and that often means that a sick or injured dog must be taken to the veterinarian’s office for examination. If a shelter person isn’t available to transport the dog, it may delay needed medical attention. In an emergency, especially after hours, the program manager or instructors may be required to step in to transport the animal in need to the vet.
Most of us shower our pets with toys and treats, and the program handlers would like to be able to do this as well. But this depends solely on donations. This also applies to needed equipment and training supplies. If needed supplies aren’t available, the program goes without. To make things more difficult, some commonly used supplies are not permitted inside because of ingredients or materials.
In spite of the challenges, the P.E.T.S. Program survives. The dogs are happy and do well and in the end, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.
If you would like to help out a bit, consider making donations of treats, toys or laundry detergent to the Ohio SPCA, the Auglaize County Humane Society or Deb’s Dogs and ask that they be used for the AOCI PETS Program.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog obedience and tracking instructor, judge of canine events and author. She teaches weekly classes for the Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution’s PETS Program and provides training and consultation under the banner of “Sidekicks” and “Training for Dogs and Their People.”