Story by Dana Simas, OPEC PIO 

Video by Jeff Baur, OPEC TV Specialist

In March 2012, inmates at California Institution for Women (CIW) began training shelter dogs to become working partners with children diagnosed with Autism.

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Cooper takes a break from training. (Photograph by CDCR videograher Jeff Baur)

In partnership with Pathways to Hope, a nonprofit community organization, the program gives inmates the chance to be trusted with responsibility and give back to the community.

The program combines elements of inmate rehabilitation with service to the community.

All of the dogs selected for this program come from local animal shelters. This sparks a special bond between the inmate trainer and the pup knowing they’re both being given a second chance.

“These dogs were throwaway dogs to end up in the shelter, prisoners are sometimes considered throwaway,” said inmate Tammy Holycross. “It’s like we team up together – they help us, we help them.”

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The dogs are taught to help their partners by pulling manual wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, providing assistance for walking among other tasks. They also provide constant companionship.

Cody, an approximately 1-year old Chocolate Lab, is being trained to help stop an autistic child who scratches to the point of causing lacerations. Cody is trained to push the hand away from wherever the child is scratching.

“He’ll be someone’s best friend someday,” CIW Prison Pup Program Coordinator Carol Taylor said.

Every dog that is trained through the Prison Pup Program at CIW is placed with a client through Pathways to Hope. The support of volunteers and participation by CDCR inmates ensures the program’s ability to provide service dogs to clients at no charge.

Dusty, a Cockapoo mix, is being trained to assist either a child or an adult who is confined to a wheelchair. Dusty can pick up dropped items, take clothes out of the dryer, operate light switches and put garbage into a trash bin.

“Training Dusty and learning the skills have really help me get out of myself and realize that I am worthy of getting better, I am worthy of change,” inmate Kristi Sindelar said.

Also being trained is Cooper, a one-year old large breed mix, who was found with his brother wondering the streets malnourished and mistreated. He and his brother were picked up by the animal shelter and were going to be euthanized.

Today, Cooper is trained to prevent a child with autism from running away.

When given the proper command, Cody will “anchor” by laying down and will not get up until released from the command. With the child tied to Cody’s collar, there’s no way the 3-year old child is going anywhere.

“It’s made a major impact on my life,” inmate and trainer Kimshana Street said.

The program started with seven inmates and two dogs, currently, the program has the capacity to train up to six dogs at a time.

Each dog requires the care of three inmates — a primary trainer, a secondary trainer and a puppy sitter. Inmates learn valuable skills, such as training, grooming, and caretaking, and are given a constructive way to spend their time that provides a sense of accomplishment and pride.

The dogs stay with any of the three inmates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and even sleep in the cells with the inmates.

A special housing unit has been designated for all of the dogs and inmates involved in the program to provide mutual support.

Trainers are expected to attend obedience training sessions run by staff twice a week and practice with their puppies at least twice a day. Trainers provide basic grooming, and daily checklists and weekly progress reports regarding the puppy’s health, training and personality.

The inmate participants are interviewed and chosen by CIW and Pathways to Hope staff.

They are required to sign a volunteer participation agreement that covers caretaking and training and includes conduct requirements. The agreement provides guidelines to provide for the welfare of the puppies and ensure the success of the program.

To qualify for the program, inmates must be physically fit and able to lift 45 pounds. They also must have a minimum of two years remaining in their sentence, must be clear of discipline for the previous year and cannot have a history of violence to animals or children.

The Prison Pup Program provides an ideal combination of rehabilitative benefits for inmates and assistance to the disabled. The dedication and attention to detail that these women have provided has led to positive results for both the inmates and the community.

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” one Inmate said. “When I get out I plan on working with dogs, training dogs, saving dogs.”

Here are links to previous articles, videos and photo galleries about CDCR’s extensvie and successful rehabilitative programs:

HVAC program at Deuel Vocational Institution heats up

SCC auto-body repair course primes inmates for successful lives

Building model homes helps inmate, CDCR

FSP welding instructor sparks success as many inmates land jobs

CDCR prepares inmates for carpentry jobs