Prison dog training program gives back to the community
Feb. 15, 2013
A few dogs are out of their kennels mingling with inmates in the common area of a unique prison housing unit at Oshkosh Correctional Institution (OSCI), home of the new Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ guide/service dog training program PawsForward.
Every week inmates in PawsForward practice training techniques taught by volunteers from OccuPaws. Lessons include instruction on how to have the dog walk properly, pass by food on the ground and stay focused when passing other dogs.
The program is partnering with OccuPaws Guide Dog Association and Pathways to Hope, to train guide dogs and service dogs.
“It’s very exciting to be part of the program,” said Barb Schultze, president of OccuPaws. “The dogs will be terrifically trained.”
OSCI Warden Judy Smith said the program is performing a community service at no additional cost.
“The guys volunteer their time and no one gets paid,” said Smith. “It has created a positive environment … it is amazing to watch the staff and inmates with the dogs.”
PawsForward launched last December and currently five dogs are in training. If donations continue, the program will train as many as 15 dogs at a time.
Schultze is thrilled at the program’s potential to help meet a critical community need. Seventeen blind/visually impaired people in Wisconsin are on a waiting list for guide dogs and many more adults and children with other disabilities, including autism, need service dogs.
“More than any other prison program, it’s a way to make a difference and give back,” said inmate Tommie Thames. “But whatever I do (it) will only put a dent in what I owe to society and want to give back.”
Twelve inmates and five dogs inhabit a dormitory-style area where they eat, sleep and train and each cell holds two inmates, a dog and a kennel.
The quarters are tight in the PawsForward dormitory-style housing unit where inmates and dogs room together.
“It’s a chance to give back to the community,” said inmate Alphonso Waters. “I’ve done a lot of wrong in my life and this is a great way for me to right it … to help people.”
Waters said the program has motivated him to change in positive ways. “That’s one thing I’ve learned since being incarcerated - that if you make a change within yourself, then you make a change within your life,” Waters said. “So them giving us a chance with the dogs - it really helps us, and it really helps the people who need the dogs.”
Dogs and prisons do mix
The idea of bringing dogs into the institution generated skepticism among correctional officers, but now many are supportive.
“I was skeptical when I first heard about it … but I now see a lot of staff support for it,” said Sgt. Steve Hutson who works in the dog training housing unit with Sgt. Dave Collier. They are volunteers on the PawsForward staff committee which helped develop the program.
Both sergeants said everybody enjoys interacting with the dogs and the program is incentive for the trainers to stay out of trouble and focused on its goal.
Inmate Todd Collins talked about the revelations he’s had about PawsForward.
“The positive aspects of it are totally far and away more than I expected,” said Collins. “The final product - the dog serving mankind aspect of this thing - is just outstanding.”
Volunteer instructors from OccuPaws teach the inmates obedience instruction and insider tips from the world of guide/service dog training.
A PawsForward inmate trainer makes a connection with one of the dogs during a grooming session. Inmates said they are learning as much from the dogs as the dogs learn from them.
“The years of experience brought to the program by the volunteer trainers is incredible,” Schultze said. “This is the caliber of professional training seminars that the general public would pay hundreds of dollars to experience.”
One of the instructors called the program her life’s dream and said she’s been “blown away” by the inmate trainers’ attention to detail and practicing.
Other volunteers teach dog grooming techniques, all part of an extensive curriculum that will culminate in about 18 months.
Once a dog is fully trained, OccuPaws will place the animal with a blind/visually impaired person.
To launch PawsForward, money, supplies and services were donated by a long list of groups and businesses from Wisconsin and across the country.
A nun promotes dogs as a ‘tool for change’
At the heart of PawsForward is a nun who is passionate about how dogs can help people and preaches that message wherever she goes. Sister Pauline Quinn, a 70-year-old Dominican nun from Marinette, Wis., is responsible for starting dog training programs in 40 prisons in 24 states and several countries.
Quinn founded Pathways to Hope and approached Warden Smith and was instrumental in getting PawsForward launched.
“I was impressed with her passion and sincerity,” said Smith.
Sister Pauline Quinn observes a PawsForward training session, sharing advice and words of support along the way. The 70-year-old Dominican nun travels around the U.S. and world setting up prison dog training programs. She and her nonprofit group Pathways to Hope were instrumental in getting PawsForward launched.
Quinn’s passion stems from a physically and emotionally abusive childhood. She wound up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles and unable to speak.
“I was a street person for a while … traumatized to the point that I became mute,” she said. “A dog named Joni helped me change my life.”
That stray dog helped Quinn heal herself and with a help of Washington state researcher and former World War II POW she eventually started promoting dog training programs. Her first program began over 30 years ago in Washington and now all 12 prisons there have an animal training program.
“It is my belief that no matter how difficult our life might be, if we focus on helping others even in small ways, then our own lives of suffering can take on meaning and help us heal,” said the 70-year-old nun whose life was turned into a Hollywood movie in 2001.
Quinn says “using the dog as a tool for change” is the motivation behind her dog programs. She remains as committed to helping inmates become “other-centered” as she is to helping persons in the community.
David Chiapetta, another inmate who is training a golden retriever, calls it “an honor” to be part of the program.
“It’s hard not to get choked up,” said Chiapetta while wiping his eyes. “It’s just a blessing to be able to do it, and then you’re giving back to the community, trying to make amends for your crime … it’s gonna change me.”