Jail Inmates Learning to Train Dogs

DALLAS —Most jail programs teach inmates job skills, such as bike repair or woodwork. But a new course at the Dallas County Jail adds another, more emotional layer of education: empathy.

Dallas County commissioners this week approved Home for Hounds, a dog-training class for inmates. During the five-week course, 10 inmates will train dogs plucked from the euthanization line at the Grand Prairie shelter. The goal: to boost adoption rates, give inmates a vocational skill and, most important, help teach them how to care more about others.
An instructor from El Centro Community College will teach the inmates, and at the end of the course, participants will receive a certificate.

“It teaches the inmate to be more nurturing toward another creature, to have sympathy and to take care of it,” Yolanda Lara, the jail’s program director, told The Dallas Morning News). “It’s just a better quality of life for the inmate, for that returning citizen that’s coming back into our community.”

Dog-training programs for inmates have become popular around the country. They’re in prisons and state jails in Texas, but this will be the first one in a county jail in the state. Sheriff Lupe Valdez asked Lara to develop the course after stumbling upon a story about one on Facebook nearly a year ago. Lara reached out to Commissioner Elba Garcia to help find a shelter partner.

Garcia said she chose the Grand Prairie shelter because they were “ready to help us,” whereas the Dallas shelter had more requirements.

“We’re excited,” Garcia said. “It’s a great opportunity to teach our inmates and help them get a job after.”

The program will start Oct. 1 and be funded through the sheriff’s commissary fund. The $74,300 budget funds a detention officer, dog food, kennels, textbooks and a computer. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals donated collars, leashes and dog beds.

Only inmates with no history of violence, in or out of the jail, will be eligible. They will have to apply with a written essay and an interview. Sheriff’s staff will choose 10 inmates to train five dogs. Getting picked is an incentive for participants to behave themselves. If they get into a fight or disrespect a guard, they will be kicked out.

The program will be open only to male inmates initially because women tend to be released quicker, Lara said. In the future, jail staff hope to start a dog-grooming program of shorter duration that women could join.

Participating inmates will have to wake up at 5 a.m. to take the dogs outside, then spend five more hours a day teaching the dogs commands such as sit, stay and heel, and how to socialize with other animals and people. Inmates who aren’t in programs have more lounge time. Though they have to wake up at 4 a.m. if they want breakfast, many sleep through it. They spend their days playing checkers, watching TV and hanging out.

“This program is certainly moving in the right direction,” said Dr. David Hershey, a Dallas psychiatrist who has worked with prisoners. “Hopefully some inmates can awaken in themselves some care for their fellow man and woman.”

Many criminals are so hardened that it’s hard for people to get through to them, but having to take care of a cute little dog might help, Hershey said. “I don’t know how much difference this is going to make, but something like this ought to be tried.”

Lara said she modeled the program mostly off one in Gwinnett County, Georgia, called Operation Second Chance. There, a man wrote on the group’s Facebook page that he had gotten two of his dogs, Clifford and Lady, from the jail.

“Can’t say enough positive about our experience with this wonderful program,” he wrote.

For inmates, these types of programs can help change their lives, said Candido Santiago, a convicted cocaine dealer who learned to train dogs as a prisoner in North Central Correctional Institution in Massachusetts.

Santiago, who was featured in a documentary called “Dogs on the Inside,” wrote an essay for The Daily Beast about his experience. He wrote of learning to coax a skittish Chihuahua out of his crate and the fulfillment of gaining its trust.

“During my time with these dogs, I developed a bond with all of them and I cried when each of them left to go to their new home,” Santiago wrote.

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