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When Lori Stevens’ dogs play fetch, they don’t chase after a ball, a Frisbee or a block of wood. Instead, they retrieve things like a wireless telephone, a key ring or, in some cases, an artificial limb.
Stevens, with the help of 22 offenders at the Crain and Murray units in Gatesville, trains service dogs for military veterans and others with disabilities through Patriot Paws, a nonprofit organization based in Rockwall.
Founded by Stevens in 2005, Patriot Paws started its prison training program in February 2008 at the suggestion of former Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Christina Melton Crain, namesake of the Crain Unit. Thirteen beds are reserved for program participants at Crain and nine at Murray.
“To me, this is TDCJ’s mission statement all rolled into one,” said Lt. Audrey England, the top security officer assigned to the program. “We’re able to help the public in training these animals to go out there and be of service, and we’re also helping offenders reintegrate back into society. I’ve seen it make a difference not only in the lives of veterans, but I’ve also seen a difference in the offenders.”
“I love this more than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” said offender Carla Dees, who was recently granted parole after more than two years in the program. “It’s the
only thing I’ve done that is worthwhile.”
“It makes me feel better about myself,” added offender Dianna Biscamp, the program’s designated puppy trainer. “It helps me right all of the wrongs of my past.”
Long waiting list
In September, approximately 60 offenders were on a waiting list to get into the two-year program. To participate, an offender must be a trusty with a clean disciplinary record and show a genuine interest in working with animals. Animal abusers are excluded. For their part, the dogs, which are afforded full access to public areas once certified, must be friendly-looking, show no signs of aggression and have a desire to please their owners. They come to Patriot Paws from all over the country, primarily through donations and adoptions. Most are Labrador retrievers, although a standard poodle and a Burmese mountain dog have also been trained at Gatesville. Throughout the course of their training, the dogs are rotated among offenders every six to eight weeks so they don’t become too attached to one trainer.
|Blaze picks up a ring of keys as part of his service training for a wheelchair-bound person.|
Biscamp said she volunteered for the program 2 ½ years ago simply because she loves dogs. She soon learned it takes hard work since offenders must share quarters with their canines and tend to their needs around the clock.
“Originally, I got in here to play with puppies,” Biscamp said. “Now it’s a passion. When you get in here and see what these dogs can do, it’s amazing. I never dreamed that a dog could do the things these dogs can do.”
Doing the laundry
Offenders teach the dogs 35 basic behaviors before customizing their training to meet the specific requirements of a disabled person. Dogs in the program can pull up bed covers, retrieve a bottle from a refrigerator, pick up a wafer-thin credit card from the floor, and even help with the laundry by dropping soiled clothing in a washing machine and removing items from a dryer. Some can also remove shoes and socks and pull up a pair of trousers for a disabled person.
Eighteen dogs trained by TDCJ offenders have already been placed, with about 80 percent going to disabled veterans. Still, in September, Patriot Paws had more than 40 disabled persons waiting for service dogs like those trained in Gatesville. Stevens said the high demand and the fact that it takes 18 months to two years for a dog to finish training makes the prison program invaluable. The program helps the nonprofit organization save the $20,000 to $30,000 it would cost to have the dogs trained by professionals over a two-year period.
“The prison program gives us the opportunity to have 22 trainers all training at the same time without having to pay them,” said Sam Graeff, training coordinator for Patriot Paws. “That allows us to train more dogs, which we then give away.”
Service dogs trained at TDCJ
Patriot Paws is one of several collaborative dog training programs operating within TDCJ. Others include the PAWS (Pawsitive Approach Worthwhile Solutions) program at the Dominguez State Jail in San Antonio, where offenders train guide dogs for the blind. Offenders assigned to the Travis State Jail near Austin teach basic skills to dogs belonging to the Transportation Security Administration, while privately-operated facilities in central and west Texas work with local rescue shelters to socialize dogs with behavioral issues or histories of abuse.
Stevens said she visited the PAWS program but still had reservations about committing to a prison-based initiative.
“Sure, you do when there’s a ‘No Hostage Beyond This Gate’ sign on the front door, but because of the wardens and the reception we got in Huntsville, it was like, ‘This is a cool thing,’” she said. “I think it’s a great relationship.”
Program changes behavior
Crain Unit Senior Warden Teresa Moya said she’s seen the program change offender behavior and instill a sense of pride and accomplishment in them.
“It gives them a purpose in life,” Moya said. “Historically, female offenders who have been abused either physically or mentally (in the free world), have been told that they’re not worth anything. Now they learn that they are worth something, that they’re good for something.”