Prisoners train dogs, get them ready for adoption
By Brendan Quealy
Most people would not be too keen on the idea of dogs spending every waking moment with convicted felons. However, programs such as “Puppies for Parole” offered by the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) have shown that our four-legged friends can have an amazing effect on the rehabilitation process.
George Lombardi, director of MDOC, has instituted the “Puppies for Parole” program at 18 of the 20 prisons under his control. He has seen firsthand how mutually beneficial these relationships are. “More than 500 dogs have been socialized, trained, and adopted out of the program,” reports Lombardi. “Over half of the dogs have been adopted by staff from the prisons.” The dogs, which Lombardi says are usually in a bad way themselves, are assigned to two prisoners and are with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They even sleep in the dormitory cells with the prisoners.
“[The dogs] are usually sick or lame—we even had one dog that was blind and deaf,” says Lombardi. “But a lot of these prisoners have been abused, so there is a bond that is created.” The prisoners and the dogs work on basic commands using only positive reinforcement techniques, which means rewarding the dog for desired behavior and ignoring the dog for unwanted behavior. There are numerous benefits, according to Lombardi—one of the biggest is making the prison a safer place.
“I think it is unusual for any offender to get unconditional love and so it is good for them,” he observes. “I think that the less humanely you treat offenders, the more dangerous the prison environment becomes.” Lombardi sees it as a “win-win-win” situation because the prisoners are taught responsibility and accountability, the dogs are given a second chance at a forever home, and the prison staff has a calmer and safer workplace.
“This is all voluntary, but you can’t be in this program unless you behave appropriately,” says Lombardi, who has seen prisoners continue with “Puppies for Parole” while also participating in substance abuse and GED courses. “It really reduces recidivism.”
While “Puppies for Parole” is unique, it certainly is not the first of its kind. Lombardi is proud of its success, and says the prisoners have really seemed to take to this program. MDOC works closely with shelters, rescues, and other animal welfare organizations throughout the state to match the right dogs with the right prisoners.
“It has really built a relationship between the prison and the community,” Lombardi comments. “People love dogs, and this program socializes and trains them to make them more adoptable. We’re happy to help shelters out.” The training lasts for two months while the prisoner and dog go through the rehabilitation process together. The dogs are taught verbal commands and have to pass the Canine Good Citizenship test at the end of the program. Once they have done that, the dogs are then put up for adoption.
“I think it’s a great way for them to repay their debt to these communities,” says Lombardi. “Plus it gives them an incentive to behave, so they can continue being a part of the training.”
Lombardi stresses that “Puppies for Parole” receives no assistance from the state, and operates entirely on the generosity of people within the community, including all of the animal advocates they work with.
To learn more about “Puppies for Parole,” please visit doc.mo.gov/division/dai/puppies.php. You can also find a list of the dogs that have graduated from the program and are available for adoption.