Benner Township Prison Welcomes Shelter Dogs

This article first published in Pawsitively Pets magazine February 2015

Positive reinforcement may not be what comes to mind when people think about prison, but for some of the inmates at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Benner Township, it is a critical tool—for dog training, that is. Through a shelter dog prison program recently implemented by Pam Graci, owner of Wags and Woof Dog Training, select inmates in cell block K start their day by tending to the needs of four shelter dogs.

The program is called A Dog’s Tale From Jail, and the goal is to give the dogs the socialization and basic skills that will help them find their “forever homes”; the side benefits, according to Graci, are immeasurable. “I like the sense of warmth, compassion, and humanity the dogs bring to the prison,” she said.

Graci, who has been a professional dog trainer for 12 years, conceived of the prison dog program after participating in a service dog program through Canine Partners for Life at SCI Smithfield. Rather than continuing to work with service dogs, Graci wanted to focus on her passion, which has always been in rescue dogs.

Having three rescue dogs of her own, Graci is intimately familiar not only with the challenges of finding them all homes but also with ways to overcome those challenges. “With a lot of consistency and communication, you can give a dog a set of skills that are what people are looking for,” she said.

Helping the shelter dogs learn those skills is the job of the inmates involved in the program. But before those inmates became dog “handlers,” much work had to be done.

It took two years of planning and preparation—finding shelters to participate, accommodating the prison’s regulations and requirements, creating a functional environment for the dogs, evaluating temperaments for potential participation, and training the handlers who would train the dogs—to get the program up and running.

Graci worked with the handlers for two months before taking the first round of shelter dogs to the prison. She practices positive reinforcement training in which dogs are rewarded for good behavior rather than punished for their mistakes. The handlers, she said, had not looked at training from that perspective but thought they had to be stern and to “dominate.”

“There should never be fear,” Graci said, “only enthusiasm and healthy respect.”

This approach has yielded benefits beyond the dogs, according to Maureen McGough, the correctional counselor involved in the program. “This is an opportunity for the handlers to, first off, help the dogs learn what they need to be successful in society—the socialization and basic commands that will help them in getting adopted—and it’s giving the inmates the ability to learn the importance of having such skills.”

Each dog has its own training plan, developed by Graci and updated as necessary, which the handlers implement from week to week. Dog handlers are required to keep a daily journal, and Graci reviews journal entries, observes and monitors progress, and teaches new skills during her semiweekly visits.

“It’s also teaching them (handlers) discipline,” said McGough, “and how to have healthy interactions. They now have the ability to demonstrate that, although they’ve made bad choices in the past, they can still be productive in a positive way.”

According to Graci, dogs end up in shelters for various reasons, including behavior problems. “I think the inmates identify with dogs who have issues and need a second chance,” she said.

Participating shelters for the start of the program were Nittany Greyhounds and Pets Come First. Toni Duchi, president of Nittany Greyhounds, said greyhounds can be more sensitive than other dog breeds when it comes to harsh training methods. She was eager to participate, having worked with Graci over the years and seeing the program as a way to help more dogs find homes while freeing up two kennels at the shelter. Her only concerns were in making sure the facility was “greyhound friendly.”

“Within five minutes of taking the dogs out there, I felt fine,” she said. “I could see that Pam had done a lot of training with the guys (handlers) already, and I had given them a lot of information specific to greyhounds, which they had read.”

Deb Warner, president and shelter manager of Pets Come First, sees the program as a “win-win” with dogs getting professional-level training that future owners will not have to put the time and money into after adoption. “When you’re running a facility, you don’t have as much time to work with the dogs as you’d like,” she said. “They have the time to work with them one-on-one.”

Each dog is assigned a primary and secondary handler and has its own crate, where it sleeps in the cell with its handler. Dogs will live at the prison until they are adopted, but first, according to Graci, they must develop the behaviors and skills that will make them successful in their new homes.

Handlers are responsible for everything a dog owner would do, including feeding, exercising, training, and taking the dogs outside when necessary, even in the middle of the night. All this work requires cooperation and active participation of the guards and prison staff, whose collaborative efforts are necessary to ensure the dogs’ safety and progress.

“This program is not easy,” said Duchi, noting that the dogs interact with dozens of people every day. “If even one person isn’t on board, it can set a dog back in its training.”

So far, all the counselors, guards, and handlers have been eager to contribute. “Everyone is kind of working as a team, and that’s really neat to see,” said Graci.

During the day, the dogs interact with other inmates and prison guards in an indoor common room and an outside play area. Since the dogs entered the prison, McGough said, “The atmosphere within the entire unit has been increasingly positive and calmer.”

According to Duchi, the dogs adapted surprisingly well to the prison environment, which can be chaotic and loud at all hours of the day and night. Graci credits the handlers’ savvy and ability to absorb training methods “like a sponge” for some of the progress. “One of the teams has a dog with some reactivity issues—lunging and barking on a leash—but smart. Their natural ability to read her and get her out of a bad situation is something that can take years to learn,” she said.

By the end of week six, each of the program’s inaugural four dogs had gone to an adoptive home or had one waiting. “Even the new dog, two weeks into the program, has three or four applications,” Graci said. “It’s been six weeks, and we have five dogs out the door.”

She updates the program’s website and Facebook page with weekly progress reports and hopes to expand the program to include dogs from additional shelters. “The goal is to get as many dogs as possible into their forever homes.”

To McGough it is clear that the dogs aren’t the only ones benefitting. “This program is helping the inmates understand how the choices they made that resulted in their incarceration had impact on victims. They are starting to understand empathy,” she said.

The handlers have expressed surprise at how attached they’ve gotten to their new constant companions and by the emotions the dogs are eliciting, according to Duchi. “I took two new dogs out there today, and the guys were beaming from ear to ear. They immediately started working with the dogs—hugging them, running with them. I didn’t expect them to be so tender and patient with the dogs,” she said.

McGough has heard requests from inmates interested in doing fundraising to provide necessities for the program. “The dogs become attached to the handlers and the handlers are completely devoted to their dogs,” she said. “They are no longer frozen as far as emotions are concerned because for the first time in many years, they can feel some reward on an emotional level. It’s a pay it forward—through this program, they’re in a position where they’re able to give something back to society.”

Graci has also noted such results. “The things I see in their journal are amazing—what the program is giving them,” she said. “I want to keep hearing ‘I don’t know who you’re helping more, me or the dogs.’”
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Editor’s note: A Dog’s Tale From Jail is supported by community donations and the generous contributions of Fred Metzger at Metzger Animal Hospital. For more information about the program and to follow along with each dog’s progress, visit the website at http://www.adogstailfromjail.com/ and like the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/adogstalefromjail.

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