Rehabilitation comes in many different forms. The introduction of dog training programs in selected prisons across the U.S. has proven remarkably successful in rehabilitating humans and canines alike.
In the years after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger added “rehabilitation” to the California Department of Corrections name, dog programs were introduced at several prison yards in California. And here at San Quentin, a new dog program is slated to take shape in the near future.
In a typical prison dog program, dogs rescued from shelters are brought into the prison for rehabilitative training so they can be adopted out to forever families. Over the years, some of these programs have transformed into high-level service-dog training programs. The graduating canines are placed into service for wounded military vets or other disabled adults and children.
The power of prison dog programs to promote growth and development in incarcerated people has garnered national media attention. The Huffington Post published an article about the dog programs of Washington’s state prisons.
Devonte Crawford, a handler in the elite Brigadoon Service Dogs program at the Washington Correctional Complex, told the HuffPost that the program has expanded his horizons.
“Being a part of the program was completely different than anything I done before,” Crawford said. “The program has taught me … how to utilize my creativity and imagination to produce the results that I want, and strengthened my social skills and coping abilities in stressful situations, while forcing me to be more structured and disciplined.”
Another dog handler from the program, LeLand Russell, Jr., said the program has restored his sense of confidence and self-worth after being sentenced to 63 years in prison. “Training these dogs has helped me to stay focused on serving a greater purpose than myself.”
He added that his focus on the dogs keeps him “from being involved in prison drama, while allowing me to use my time productively toward a cause I really believe in.”
Crawford had similar sentiments. “It has given me a sense of being involved with society, because the dogs I train will go to someone in need, while helping to bring balance, purpose and happiness to such a negative environment,” he said.
Typically, prisoners spend months training and socializing their dogs in preparation for new lives. Prisoners often find it difficult to say goodbye to their loving dogs after spending so much time with them.
Crawford told the HuffPost about letting go of his beloved canine companions. “What keeps me going is I know the dog is going to someone who really needs their help. What I do is for something bigger than myself. I also know there are more dogs that need my help,” he said.
The author of the HuffPost article wrote, “For the individuals lucky enough to be a part of them, these programs offer a chance to give back to the communities they previously harmed. The programs are an investment in the rehabilitation taking place in the prisons that host them, and a benefit to the individuals who receive the dogs, as well as to the dogs themselves.”
Russell said the dogs give him unconditional love, which helps him to find his true self. “I can be myself. The dogs love me for who I am — I don’t have to fake being some mean angry person to impress others, and often that’s how prison functions. I don’t want to be violent, or even act like I am. Plus, how can the innocence of a puppy not humble you?
“These dogs leave an everlasting paw print on your heart, and memories that will last a lifetime,” Russell said.