CRC inmates with their dogs in training.

By Lt. Sarah Watson, AA/PIO
California Rehabilitation Center

On April 25, 2016, behind the concrete walls and barbed wire of the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), the unlikeliest of alliances began.

On that day, five inmates and two dogs became the inaugural pieces of a program focused on preparing service dogs for physically-challenged individuals. Aptly named the Service Dog Program (SDP), in less than a year it has become a top-functioning program consisting of 30 inmate trainers, with eight future service dogs.

The SDP has seen three dogs graduate and become the focus of a newspaper article and a 12-part documentary series for Discovery’s Animal Planet Canada series called, “Collar of Duty.”  The success of the SDP is attributed to the leadership of Warden Cynthia Y. Tampkins, the support of staff sponsors, and the professional guidance of the Canine Support Team (CST).

CST was founded in 1989 by Carol Roquemore. As a child, Roquemore was afflicted by polio and used an electric wheelchair for mobility. A dog-lover since childhood, she knows first-hand how trained dogs can be of enormous assistance to physically-challenged individuals. She took her passion for dogs and her experience as a dog trainer and formed CST, an organization committed to helping disabled individuals achieve a greater level of mobility and independence.

Benefits

CST offers many services to assist people with disabilities. One of their more popular programs is the SDP. The objective of this program is to prepare inmates to train service dogs for disabled persons.

The SDP not only helps those with disabilities, but also positively impacts the lives of the inmate participants. Research on the effectiveness of prison dog-training programs shows inmates who train dogs are less likely to reoffend, and they learn invaluable skills that help them to overcome the challenges associated with life in prison, all while giving back to the community.

Research also concludes dog training programs reduce the number of violent incidents on the yard as the inmates are afforded the opportunity to learn a skill set that can be used as a means of employment upon their release from prison.

Original inmates in the program with the first two dogs Ian and Arthur.

To become a part of the SDP, inmates must submit an application and undergo a screening process.  At 18 months of age, the dogs are then assigned to an inmate trainer after being raised in a puppy-raiser home where they are taught obedience skills.  The dogs remain with the inmate trainer in the prison for 4-6 months where they are taught to turn lights on and off, open and close doors and drawers, retrieve dropped or hard to reach items, and bark to get help.

CST certified trainer Deborah Norman conducts two-hour training classes twice a week to prepare the inmates to become dog trainers.  The inmates have expressed how beneficial the program has been in not only preparing the dogs for service, but by also changing them.

Inmate Joshua Coleman said, “This program is really helping us to reintegrate back into society.  You’re caring for a living being.  You’re giving back and it’s a great feeling.”

Self-Help Sponsor Tara Krogh echoed inmate Coleman.

“I knew this would be a fun class to help out in; however, I had no idea the impact it would have on the inmates and myself.  I see the men working extremely hard to help the dogs.  The program means so much to the inmates involved and to the entire yard.  The inmates training the dogs now have a purpose and something to look forward to when they get out.”

Media coverage

Media outlets have been reporting about prison dog-training programs since 1981 when Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun, started the first prison dog program at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women.

CRC’s program has also received media attention in its short period of existence. On Sept. 16, 2016, the Press Enterprise published an article on the program, which at the time had only been functioning for approximately five months.

The story focused on P.J., a little black-and-white Chihuahua and his journey as he was being prepared to become a service dog. P.J. recently graduated from the program and has since been placed in his permanent home.

Community Resources Manager Vickie Grays said, “P.J. was my favorite and even I teared up when he left. But I’m proud of the work the guys did and it feels good to know the program is making a difference.”

On Oct. 10, 2016, a film crew from Summerhill Media Inc. filmed the program as part of a new 12-part documentary series called, “Collar of Duty.” The documentary series showcases several incredible stories of service and how therapy animals are transforming people’s lives.

In each episode, the show visits individuals living with a service animal to learn about their relationship and to witness how each person’s life has dramatically improved. The show also showcases the facilities that train the service animals. One such episode featured CST certified trainer Deborah Norman and CRC’s SDP. The show aired on March 17, 2017, on Discovery’s Animal Planet Canada.  Summerhill Media Inc. also plans to show the series in the U.S. in the near future.

Trainer Deborah Norman, CRM Vickie Grays, Summerhill Media film crew, and inmate trainers.

In a short period of time, the SDP has become one of the most popular rehabilitative programs offered at CRC and the impact this program is having on the inmate trainers is incredible.  Warden Tampkins is committed to seeing the program continue to grow and commends the staff, volunteers, and inmates for their hard work and dedication.

“This program does a lot of good for many people. Our program is designed to improve the lives of those in need and that’s exactly what these dogs do, not only for the disabled person but for our inmates as well. The opportunity to help someone in the community while rehabilitating our inmates is rewarding,” said Warden Tampkins.

While the end goal means the separation of the dog from the trainer, it is clear the impact of these four-legged animals will go beyond the prison walls.