Donald E. and two of the dogs he's worked with. Contributed photo.
Stealing a car landed Donald S. in a Washington state prison in the early 1970s. Then he killed a fellow inmate in 1975, and another in 1977, and was sentenced to death. When appeals reduced his sentence to life without parole, he resumed making trouble in prison. So he spent much of the next decades in Stafford Creek Corrections Center’s Intensive Management Unit, comparable to solitary confinement, according to Heather Williams, public information officer at Larch Corrections Center. “I didn’t like authority. They wanted to break me, but there was nothing they could do to stop me. I did whatever I wanted to do,” Donald S. says recently, on the phone from Stafford Creek. “Then the warden told me I could be in the dog program if I was good for a year. I don’t like people, but I like the critters.”
In the Freedom Tails program, inmates train wayward shelter dogs to make them more adoptable, says Dennis Cherry, custody unit supervisor at Stafford Creek. But to get into the program and stay in the program, Donald’s behavior would have to be impeccable. “He was in constant trouble. Now he’s had nothing but good behavior for five years,” says Cherry. “Once he was suspended for six months when he went outside when he wasn’t supposed to. He kept asking if he could come back early. He likes smaller dogs. He’s lovey dovey with them. He likes to hold them.”
“I get hassled for showing love,” says Donald, now 66. “Most of the dogs are abused and really need love. I let ‘em on my bed, let ‘em loose in the day room. They’re loyal. They don’t rat on you.”
He has trained about 14 dogs, but his favorite was Flash, a 13-inch high, 75-pound basset hound with hefty legs. “He bellows and goes for the knees of other dogs,” says Donald. “I wasn’t supposed to let him sleep with me, but I did. He lay with his back against the wall and tried to push me out of bed with his feet.”
The first prison animal programs in the U.S. began in Washington state prisons in 1981, introduced by Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun. A relationship with a German shepherd had freed her from a life of mental illness, homelessness, and isolation, according to a Seattle Times interview with her. She was leery of people and avoided them, but found that when her interactions with them focused on her dog, she was more comfortable. She also found that she could train dogs to help the disabled.
When Quinn tried to convince institutional administrators to make use of her findings, only those at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, in Gig Harbor, were receptive. They soon discovered that animal care and training generated more peaceful and constructive relationships among inmates and staff. Most prisons in Washington state now have animal training programs, not by bureaucratic decree from above, but because prison administrators hear about their demonstrable, if not quantifiable, benefits elsewhere and start their own, according to Lisa Flynn, Larch Corrections Center superintendent.
However, only a small percentage of inmates participate. Stafford Creek allows 16 from the 272-inmate medium custody unit and 20 of the 1,632 in minimum custody at a time. Out of thousands who have been in Stafford Creek since Freedom Tails began in 2009, only about 40 inmates have been in the program, says Cherry. But of those, only three returned, one for a drug violation, two others for probation violations.
Statewide, the recidivism rate for offenders with drug and property crimes is 30 percent, and 16 percent for those whose crime was murder, says Flynn. So the finding is impressive, but falls short of empirical support for the program, lacking a control group of inmates who were eligible, but did not participate. “It’s hard to find offenders not in trouble,” says Cherry. They are also ineligible if their crimes include domestic violence, child or elder abuse, or other crimes with vulnerable victims. Yet the Freedom Tails program reverberates through each participating unit of 272 inmates. “When we don’t have dogs, they ask, ‘When are the dogs coming?’ The dogs cheer them up and keep violence and infractions down,” Cherry says.
The shelter provides a trainer, food and other supplies. Inmates learn to train dogs without punishment, just positive reinforcement, rewarding desired behavior. Research has long shown this approach to be most effective.
Two cellmates care for each dog, one as primary trainer, the second as backup when the other is elsewhere. With the next dog, they switch roles. Their “pod” of 136 inmates also includes two walkers. “Some prefer to be like the grandfather, picking up the dog for a walk, playing with it, and bringing it back,” says Cherry.
In these cooperative groups that revolve around dogs, he says, “A small percentage don’t make it. Some don’t want to watch the dog, or someone convinces them to do something dumb. If they don’t follow guidelines, or if they’re too rough, staff and offenders are all watching.”
Program rules run counter to “no snitch” prison politics, Cherry says, requiring any rough treatment of animals to be reported. Then the offender has a chance to change their behavior before being removed from the program. However, Cherry notes, “They also report stuff that isn’t true.”
Dogs who bite someone, a rare occurrence, he says, are also taken out.
Humane society trainers select dogs specifically for each inmate. Like inmates, shelter dogs arrive with a range of issues, so a “stoplight” system regulates interactions with them, says Cherry. They first wear a red bandanna that means only the inmate training them can touch them. Later, as determined by the handler, a yellow bandanna signals that others can pet the dog with the handler’s permission. Anyone can pet a dog with a green bandanna, and they can play in the yard with other dogs. With inmates’ constant presence, dogs get intensive training and attention to other needs—physical therapy for injuries, solitude in increments to remedy separation anxiety.
After the 10-week training program, dogs are usually ready for adoption, and the shelter posts them online. When potential adopters come for a “meet and greet,” each trainer gives a short speech about their dog. “There was a guy who had been in segregation for years and wouldn’t talk to staff, but the dog program changed him,” says Cherry. “Now he asks questions and talks in front of the group.”
Flynn introduced a dog training program at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla when she ran the close custody unit there. She was looking for a program to reduce violence, she says, as Hispanic gang conflicts and multi-man fights created security threats. She also considered a group violence reduction program, developed in Boston, that entails “pinpointing” both those who goad and those who engage in violence and withdrawing their privileges for 30 days. “Men who drive violence send others to do it,” says Flynn. “But I preferred the proactive animal training program.”
So in 2008, Blue Mountain Humane Society brought dogs for training, whether abused and fearful, young and rowdy, or old and accustomed to a single owner. Several Hispanic gang members seemed to have gotten permission to refrain from violence, so they could participate, Flynn says. “One gang member ran laps with a Chihuaha in the big yard. He was well seated in the hierarchy, but that put a smile on everyone’s face, even gang members. If you’re smiling, you’re less likely to act out,” says Flynn, who has four rescue dogs. “It’s fun to have dogs in the unit, even if you’re not in the program. They’re warm and fuzzy in a sterile environment.”
The program has strict requirements and benchmarks, Flynn notes. Participants can have no infractions. Dog care, training sessions, and exercise periods are required. Like Cherry, Flynn saw dramatic change with inmates in the program.
Donald E., on the phone from Larch, said he had been sleeping 19 to 21 hours a day and taking Doxepin and Risperdal, antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs to relieve his depression and auditory hallucinations. A methamphetamine habit had driven him to commit a robbery, which was his final strike under a three-strike law mandating a life sentence for multiple crimes. He arrived in prison in 2010, leaving behind six children and his “best friend,” Sassy, a chow Rottweiler mix.
Prison officials, seeing him struggle, suggested the dog training program. His first trainee, in 2012, was Victor, a German shorthair pointer. “Victor was bubbly, rowdy, playful and stubborn,” says Donald E. “I didn’t know how to train dogs, but I spent 24/7 with him and learned. It was fantastic. It hurt to see him go.”
Within a week of starting the program, Donald dropped his medications “cold turkey,” he says. “The dog changed the way I thought and felt and brought life to my life. I was so hopeless. I focused on the dog and taking care of him. Other inmates loved it too. Men who had been locked up for decades hadn’t petted a dog in years. It brought the kid out. It changes your body chemistry.”
Jonathon Bennett, a corrections officer at the West Complex in Walla Walla, says he had been skeptical about the program, afraid that inmates would train dogs to attack staff. He was surprised to see swift attitude changes with inmates in and around the program. The dogs changed too.
“Dogs came in with medical, mental health, and aggression problems, and I took the worst of the worst. Pit bulls, rottweilers. I’d get attached,” says Donald E. “They were screened, but they’d get jealous of other dogs and growl and lunge. You’ve got to read your dog. I stopped them when I saw their demeanor change.”
Dog fights happened, but rarely, usually over toys, he says. “No dogs were seriously injured. If they scuffled, we changed who was off leash together.”
As Donald E. trained 36 dogs, he noticed what rewards motivated each dog—whether cheese, meat, squeaky toys, ropes or balls. “I learned to teach dogs to stop, stay, sit, lie down, and leave it.” he says. “Then I added other tricks and put them in a journal to go home with the dog.”
Ralph, a whippet mix, learned 14 tricks, including, “stand for search.” He would put his front paws on the wall while being patted down, then trot to his cell. He also knew how to take a bow.
Donald E. noticed changes in staff relationships with inmates too. “They asked us questions about training,” he says. “Half the dogs I trained were adopted by staff.”
“The frequency and intensity of training is more than with a pet owner, and some handlers have a knack,” says Tara Zimmerman, trainer from the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. “It’s all positive reinforcement, no punishment. A lightbulb goes on for some guys about their children.”
They take written tests, keep journals, and work as a team. “That unfolds before us. Advanced trainers don’t always help new ones,” and some bicker over blanket and treat allotments, she said. “But now we have a great team. They meet on their own. Prison cliques don’t always engage with each other, but that changes with dogs. During puppy visiting hours, there’s a line of inmates who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other, and guards fall in love with dogs.”
Donald E. recalls happily waiting for new dogs to arrive, watching the front gate from his cell. But last July, to be near his children, he moved to Airway Heights Correction Center, which has no dog program. He is talking with administrators there about starting one.
Donald E.’s experience is not unique. In 2007, Federal Probation Journal published a study of a medium security Oklahoma prison program that paired dogs with depressed inmates and found that depression, and also aggression, diminished among those inmates. “Animal programs have a profound effect,” says Flynn. “But they may not go over well with the state budget. They want the biggest bang for their buck. When you have 14 dog handlers out of 480 men, do inmates have enough exposure? How many men are doing well after prison? It’s one cog in the wheel, an optional program, while others are mandated based on risks for recidivism.” Required programs often include GED classes, employment skills training, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Consequently, animal programs are all privately funded, she says.
“People at greatest risk for recidivism need the most intensive services, targeting factors that drive criminal behavior,” says Deborah Koetzle, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Animal programs don’t target criminal thinking, sex offenses, and drug addiction. Offenders need to know what gets them in trouble and how to manage risky situations. Behavioral and cognitive approaches to treatment identify situations and responses and develop new responses in trouble-prone situations.”
Those programs are evidence-based and get funding, while prison animal program studies on recidivism effects are few and inconclusive, Koetzle says. “Without following a comparable population, you don’t know if they succeed only because the people who participate come from a higher functioning population,” she says. “It’s not where I’d prioritize time for people likely to reoffend.”
However, in a 2007 study published in Behavior and Social Issues, 24 men in a Virginia prison dog training program were compared to 24 on a waitlist for the program. Dog handlers progressed in therapeutic programs faster than those on the waitlist. Also, their social skills scores improved, often a goal of prison programs, while scores of wait listed men declined in the rough prison culture. “Men in the program increased their social sensitivity,” says Angela Fournier, psychology professor at Bemidji State University, in Minnesota, who led the study. “They were better at reading people and responding in socially sensitive ways.” Also, men on the wait list had 10 infractions, while program participants had five.
Fournier concedes the limitations of studying only the group selected for the program, but according to a Massachusetts Department of Correction review of literature on prison animal programs, “Nearly all literature examining dog training programs anecdotally reports that the programs are hugely successful. Unfortunately, statistical measures of the effects of these programs do not exist. This may be due in large part to the fact that, to prison administrators, inmates, and dog recipients, the advantages are clear: reduced prison tensions and increased social interactions surrounding the dogs; development of valuable skills including patience, responsibility, compassion, and self-esteem ...”
Socializing and training feral and relinquished shelter cats also reverberates in inmates’ lives. But many pursue cat programs not because they like cats, but because they want to move out of raucous dorms to two-inmate rooms, says Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior consultant, who has been training Larch inmates in the cat program for three years for the southwest Washington shelter. “They’re unprepared for the amount of work it is,” she says. “We interview them to be sure of the fit—that they have compassion and, most importantly, desire to learn. They can develop compassion through learning to take care of someone else, instead of focusing on their own problems.”
Craig Bigler and Cheetos. Contributed photo.
Her observation is consistent with psychologist Daryl Bem’s studies finding that not only do people do what they believe in, they come to believe in what they do. Such was the case with Craig Bigler, now 51, who had been incarcerated seven times for a total of 15 years, most recently for burglary. He took a jar of seashells and a can of Dust-Off computer cleaner and ended up in Larch in June of 2017.
“I was partying with friends, doing drugs, living day by day,” he says. “I’d been to Larch twice. There were fights sometimes. We were grouped tightly in a dorm with 33 guys, four to a cubicle. That’s why I wanted to be in the cat program, to be in a two-man room and hibernate. I wanted a different life. I was tired of hurting my mom. Either I’d spend my life in prison or turn my life around.”
“Cats are on a similar road,” says Koski. “They’re at large because of behavior issues. It’s a last chance for them. Handlers can relate.” In her classes of 16 to 20 inmates, they “hang back” at first, and some neglect required paperwork, she says. “But I often see a shift. Some get really involved,” as did Bigler.
“I never had a pet, but I found out I enjoyed cats. They have cool personalities,” he says. “It didn’t take long for them to bond to me. But it was difficult. Larch is loud, and the floor shakes with 400 guys moving around. Cats come in skinny, malnourished, coarse and fearful of everything. They hide under a bed growling. Then they come out at night and knock everything off your desk and pee and poop everywhere.”
Consequently, he says, “I saw guys swat their cats. I didn’t want to snitch, but we got a group of 12 people to make their life miserable.”
A couple of “naïve” participants were removed from the program, Koski says, as staff and inmates are vigilant with the cats. But even when two-man rooms are their incentive, says Bigler, “Most come around and enjoy working with the cats. Marci made it interesting. She taught us how to read animals’ postures and have a calm demeanor.”
Koski also taught them to use positive reinforcement—treats, toys, and sweet talk—to lure cats out of hiding and teach them to enjoy being petted and held. “If a cat is bad and pees on your bed, you can’t discipline them,” says Bigler. “They’d think you’re being mean. They don’t understand.”
Every week when Koski visits, the inmates wrap their cats in towels and trim their nails, check their ears, and do flea treatments. Inmates trained some cats to do a “fist bump,” she says. “The cat sits. You hold out your fist, and the cat touches it. Pretty adorable.”
She sees “flashes of normalcy” among inmates. “We’re outsiders and don’t know how it is in prison. But in the program, the inmates talk, rib each other about whose lap, shoulder, or bed cats choose, and they play games with their cats. Craig learned from other guys in the program how to get started, be invested, and become a mentor.”
Bigler was released on June 28, 2018, after socializing 47 cats and kittens, he says. “After being out for nine months, I’d usually be on my way back in by now, but I took a job working swing shift,” he says. “It keeps me away from everyone.”
Craig's big on providing treats, toys, and scratching posts. However, Cheetos has nevertheless ruined two couches. "They're only couches," Craig says. Contributed photo.
On June 30, he donated his television, headphones, music player, and coffee cup from prison to a thrift store. “It’s bad luck to take anything home from prison,” he says.
But he did bring home Cheetos, his last cat from the program. “When Cheetos came, he was skinny and had urinary tract and respiratory tract infections, and he ran under the bed,” Bigler says. “But when I pulled him into bed, he was purring. I decided to keep him.”
Cheetos now has an abundance of toys, treats, and scratching posts and watches “cat TV” from a big window in Bigler’s house. “I brush him. Mom brushes him, and she says he sits at the door for an hour after I leave,” says Bigler. “When he passes, I’m gonna cry like a little girl.”
Jessica Cohen is a freelance writer living in New York.