Penley and Nieve share a sweet moment at Folsom Women’s Facility.

Penley and Nieve share a sweet moment at Folsom Women’s Facility.

Story, photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Video by Fred Harbott and Eric Owens

Few will argue there’s no benefit to playing with a puppy. But at Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF), spending quality time with dogs is about much more than having a good time – it’s about rehabilitation and giving back to the community.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has partnered with Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit group providing trained service dogs to people with disabilities, at no cost to the clients.

Part of how this is possible is through relationships with trainers who can spend time with the dogs around-the-clock, teaching them first basic socialization and obedience, then advance to skills such as opening doors, retrieving dropped items and even pushing alert buttons.

“Animals are my passion,” said inmate Tamara Allen. “This experience I will definitely take home with me.”

Danilla Espiritu said she’s excited about training a puppy which will one day help somebody.

Danilla Espiritu said she’s excited about training a puppy which will one day help somebody.

Four women at FWF are participating in the program, which welcomed Labrador/golden retriever crosses Penley and Nieve this year. The dogs are on a rotating schedule in which they spend time training with their FWF handlers for three weeks, and then spend time with volunteers in the community for one week before returning to prison.

This gives the pups ample opportunity to spend time in different environments and become comfortable with many different people. During those weeks, other dogs come to FWF to be trained by the inmates, getting them used to a different environment, as well.

“What is really important to us is that our puppy raisers teach our dogs to be well-behaved in public, to be social and to interact with people appropriately and to be easily managed so that they can eventually go out and be of service to a person with a disability,” explained James Dern, Canine Companions for Independence program director and training instructor.

The inmates meet with trainer Carly Fermer regularly to learn how to train the dogs. Penley and Nieve work on a rotating schedule with the women, often going over “homework” Fermer gives them such as lying down or retrieving items.

“We feel that it is a benefit to the inmates, the prison itself and other employees in prison, and it’s a big benefit to us,” Dern said. “The inmates tend to spend a lot of time working on skills – they tend to be really consistent with their training.”

CDCR has partnered with similar programs to train dogs at San Quentin State Prison, California State Prison-Los Angeles County, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility and the California Institution for Women, recognizing the inherent benefits of inmates learning how to raise a dog.

Inmate Tiayna Lang said there is much more to dog training than teaching “sit” and “stay.”

Tiayna Lang said for her, the learning is the best part of the program. “It’s always good to learn and to grasp knowledge, and to learn something different than what you’re used to.”

Tiayna Lang said for her, the learning is the best part of the program. “It’s always good to learn and to grasp knowledge, and to learn something different than what you’re used to.”

“Basically, it’s just a persistence thing,” she said. “If they don’t get it, then we just keep trying. We just are patient and persistent, and sooner than later they’re probably tired of hearing us say it, so they finally do it.”

Allen agreed.

“I learned a lot of patience – a lot of patience,” she laughed. “Sometimes the dog doesn’t want to do it, but if you have patience, he’ll do it, especially if you have a treat.”

Penley and Nieve will be at FWF for up to 18 months, at which time they’ll relocate to a campus in Santa Rosa, where they’ll enter advanced training.

There, they’ll add on to the skills the women at FWF taught them, learning about 20 commands to enable them to help their future owners.

“They will retrieve dropped items and deliver them to their handlers,” Dern said. “They will learn how to tug open doors; they will learn to operate buttons and push buttons. They can do things like retrieve a telephone for a person.”

In the meantime, they’re learning about socialization and obedience every day from their inmate handlers and community volunteers. On a recent “field trip,” Penley and Nieve left FWF to participate in the Canine Companions for Independence Dog Fest Walk ‘N Roll in Rocklin, which raised nearly $50,000 for the program statewide.

Inmate Danilla Espiritu said the program is teaching her skills to help her find a job when she goes home, and an added benefit is she’s coming out of her shell as a result of walking around with a cute, friendly puppy.

They won’t be this little for long. Penley and Nieve were brought to FWF at about four months old, and they’ll leave when they’re between 16 and 20 months old.

They won’t be this little for long. Penley and Nieve were brought to FWF at about 4 months old, and they’ll leave when they’re between 16 and 20 months old.

“Usually I just stay to myself, and now I feel like, wow, I’m broadening my horizons, meeting new people and just opening up,” she said. “Usually I’m very closed off and shy.”

Associate Warden Robin Harrington explained the participating inmates were chosen through an application process which took into consideration in-prison behavior, history with animals and the desire to work with dogs.

“We were looking at how we can help the community, and also looking at the rehabilitative effects of caring and taking care of something or someone,” Harrington said. “These ladies are all going home, so it’s important to start connecting in terms of taking care of things.”

Plus, the women know even though they’ll eventually have to say goodbye to Penley and Nieve, they’ll be sending them to homes where they will be helping someone in need.

“I think it’s really good,” Lang said. “It keeps me motivated knowing that they’ll help somebody who can’t necessarily help themselves all the time. It makes me feel good to know that they’ll become something.”

More stories on inmate-trained dogs

Inmate-trained dogs to help wounded vets, autistic kids, http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/11/inmate-trained-dogs-to-help-wounded-vets-autistic-kids-thanks-to-r-j-donovan-correctional-facility/

Inmates, dogs learn life skills at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/10/inmates-dogs-learn-life-skills-at-california-state-prison-los-angeles-county/

Female inmates train shelter dogs for autistic children (video) http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/04/female-inmates-train-shelter-dogs-for-autistic-children-video/

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