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Dogs Behind Bars

Offender dog training programs increasing in popularity nationwide

portrait of Eric Gambrell
Eric Gambrell
TBCJ Board Member
Offender dog training programs operating in conjunction with public service organizations are increasing in popularity – not just in Texas but nationwide. Virginia, Oregon, Ohio, New York, Arizona and North Carolina are just a few of the states operating programs similar to those in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities.

These in-prison programs are a “win-win” situation for all involved. The offenders learn responsibility and obtain a skill that can lead to gainful employment upon release, while also having the opportunity to give something back to the community. The dogs are trained to become adoptable as pets (many of which were originally abused or rescued) or to be specialized service dogs for the disabled community. The organizations, and the people they serve, benefit by having the opportunity to unite these dogs with individuals in need or a loving family.

Within the TDCJ, the Dominguez State Jail was the first facility to implement a collaborative offender dog program. In January 2000, the unit joined forces with the Guide Dogs of Texas to establish PAWS (Pawsitive Approach Worthwhile Solutions) to train guide dogs for the ever-increasing blind population in Texas. For 12-18 months, a puppy is assigned to live with two (2) volunteer offenders, 24 hours a day. The offenders live with, feed, exercise, nurture, and prepare the puppies to provide necessary services. In addition, a staff volunteer, also assigned to the dog, participates by taking the puppy into the community at least three (3) times a week to experience real-life situations. Prior to their assignment, Guide Dogs of Texas conducted a two-month training session for the offenders and staff members. The training and guidance continues as the offenders and staff progress with the experience.

The most recently implemented program is the Patriot Paws Service Dog Program, which trains and donates service dogs to disabled veterans. The program teaches the offenders to train the dogs to assist owners with daily tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. The program, operational at both the Gatesville and Murray units, started in February of this year with three (3) dogs assigned to six (6) volunteer offender trainers at each unit. The program at both facilities has expanded and now includes dogs working with wheelchair-bound offenders to aid with advanced training. As with the guide dog program, the dogs trained through Patriot Paws live with the offenders 24 hours a day for 12 to 18 months.

The Travis County State Jail also has an offender dog program underway, which allows offenders to work with dogs that belong to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). By living and working with the dogs at the unit, the offenders learn basic training skills and responsibility while helping the animals become accustomed to being around people. Once the animals are acclimated, TSA then trains the dogs to detect explosives for utilization in security assignments across the world.

A few of the Agency’s private facilities also operate collaborative offender dog programs. The Lockhart Facility, for instance, works with local rescue shelters on the PAWS in Prison (Cell Dog) Program for the female offenders. For eight (8) weeks, rescue dogs are assigned to a primary and secondary offender trainer to be socialized and to receive basic training that will be useful in a home environment. Twice a week, the offenders attend classes with professional dog trainers to help in the training process. Upon completion of the program, the dogs “graduate” and are ready for adoption by families found through the local collaborating agencies (Austin PAWS, Goliad Pet Adoptions and the Friends of the Gonzales Shelter).

The Kyle Correctional Center in conjunction with PAWS Shelter and Humane Society have the P.E.T.S. (Pawsitive Education Training Solutions) in Prison program, which provides training to dogs with behavioral issues that would typically limit their chances for adoption. The animals, assigned to two (2) offenders, live with those offenders in their cell throughout the program. Training includes socialization and skills, such as basic commands and housebreaking, that will help make the dogs more adoptable. The offenders undergo a two-week classroom course followed by six (6) weeks of hands-on training, with an official dog trainer on site weekly to assist with the training. Upon graduating, the dogs receiving a certificate of completion for their adoption files.

The Estes Unit works with Camp Wolfgang, a German Shepherd dog rescue in Ellis, Texas, to operate a Paws in Prison Program. Camp Wolfgang provides abused and rescued dogs that are in need of re-training and socialization. Each dog is assigned to a two-offender team, which provides for the dogs 24 hours a day for eight (8) weeks. The offenders receive training from highly experienced trainers and learn to work with the dogs to teach basic training and tricks. Upon graduation, the offender trainers provide a letter for the dog’s new owners identifying the animal’s likes, dislikes, and habits to help in the adoption process.

Whether it is through training these dogs to provide a special service or to be a family pet, these offender dog programs operating in collaboration with public service organizations have a positive impact on the offenders and the community as a whole.




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