The Dog Inmate Bond

Puppies learn — and teach — good behavior in prison training programs.

In prison, Shelley learned to keep a commitment and to work. She also learned to cry.

That final, perhaps most important, lesson came from an unexpected teacher: a Golden Retriever puppy named Tweed, sent to the Oregon Women’s Correctional Center in Salem to be raised before final training as an assistance dog.

By the time Tweed became her cellmate, Shelley had buried her tears, her smiles, her essence. “In prison you learn survival skills,” she said. “You learn to be very reserved and suppress your feelings.”

But now she tells tale upon tale of prison-hardened women who’ve also learned to cry – and love – simply by hugging her dog.

After all, prison walls and a criminal past don’t intimidate dogs. They perceive inmates only as humans to love and guide them. As a result, more prisons around the country are inviting dogs to learn and teach good behavior.

In most cases, the plan works. For example, about 72 percent of prison-raised dogs successfully complete the Pilot Dog program for the blind in Ohio, compared with 60 percent of dogs raised in private homes. At a similar program in the Washington State Women’s Correctional Facility in Gig Harbor, not one of the 20 puppy raisers who have been released has returned to prison.

That’s evidence of the strong – sometimes life-saving – dog-human bond.

Stephen has trained six dogs for Friends for Folks, a program at the Lexington, Okla., Correctional Center in which inmates teach basic obedience and social skills to dogs that will be adopted as companions. He frequently talks to groups from schools and juvenile centers about prison life.

“I tell them all if it wasn’t for Friends for Folks, I’d be dead by now,” he said. Stephen was transferred to six different state facilities because of his violence. Finally, at Lexington, he saw Friends for Folks as a way to turn his life around, to learn and prove that he could handle responsibility. So his dog, Susie, arrived at the prison with a mission. The little black Scottish Terrier fixed her sad brown eyes on her 50-year-old cellmate and finally begged her way into his cot to sleep – their first step together toward turning Stephen’s life from uncontrollable anger into one of caring and good behavior.

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