by Kimberly Wade
It’s official. My eyes have been opened to a whole new world—and the things I’ve learned will make a lifelong impact on me. Forgive me because this article will probably be all over the place as I try to find the words to describe one very unique experience.
I recently visited a special group of inmates at the Warm Springs Correctional Center. You see, we have about 18 dogs that are currently living at the prison with thirty something inmates—a program called PUPS on Parole. The overall goal is to help dogs that have behavioral or social challenges receive training so they can be placed up for adoption. Prospective inmates must be disciplinary free for at least a year and pass a rigorous application process to be considered for the program. They are then taught to train the dogs using positive reinforcement methods. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Here’s the thing. I was blown away. First of all, the prison was not at all what I expected. It’s clean, neat, and not at all scary. The PUPS program has a special wing where the inmates and dogs live. The cells are set up like tiny homes and they have their own outdoor park—which is all maintained by the prisoners. They actually laid the sod, set up a garden, an agility course and a play area. The dogs have handlers (their main person) and sitters (a secondary person—someone usually training to be a handler). Each week a trainer works with them—which I witnessed. The dogs far surpass basic commands. They play Tic, Tac, Toe (some dogs sit, some lay, and if they get up from the formation without being told they are out of the game), Duck, Duck, Goose and more. Dogs are presented with a variety of situations to help us learn what makes them tick. Inmates keep a daily journal of the dogs’ activities, including training notes, likes/dislikes and accomplishments. This helps them be a better dog. For example, I mentioned the cells are set up like a home. They have rugs, blankets, pillows—if a dog chews them up, they know they have to work on teaching him not to chew on things. They have kennels—therefore they’re crate trained. They have signs outside of each cell with notes, such as, “Deegan barks at strangers.” This allows the inmate to modify that behavior and tells others not to approach Deegan if they don’t know him; therefore the training is not disrupted. At the end of their journey, each dog must pass a behavioral test and evaluation before being placed up for adoption.
Though my experiences with PUPS is only beginning, already I have seen big things. In interviewing the inmates, I found they all agree that it teaches them better communication skills, respect, responsibility and self-confidence. In addition, they all agreed that it makes them better people and that the dogs’ needs come before their own.
Tyler, an inmate who is training his 4th dog, said, “I accept that I did what I did to get here, but with PUPS, I can do something good for the dog and the community. I can make a difference.” He goes on to say, “It’s not just hanging out with the dog either. We have jobs here, we have to maintain the dog park and care for the dog. This is all volunteer work but I can’t imagine not doing this.”
Adolphus had one of the most memorable, heartfelt statements. He shared, “I’ve been in the program for 12 years. I’m probably not getting out. Before getting involved in PUPS, I watched dogs come in and get second chances. Watching these big, tough inmates meet a dog and melt made me want to be involved. This program has changed my life. It’s taught me responsibility and accountability. We are held at a higher standard than other inmates and we have to set an example. PUPS makes me want to be a better person and to teach others to do the same.” In my opinion, I cast no judgement and I look to the good this program is doing. Everyone has a past, but for this group of inmates to come together for the greater good of our animals… this is lifesaving.
In 2015, 80 dogs graduated from PUPS on Parole, giving them the second chance they deserve. That’s 80 lives saved. That’s impactful.