Innovative Prison Program Teaches Man and Dog

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

At Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville, North Florida, inmates and man’s best friend both get a second chance. Inmates locked up for various serious offenses are transformed by training canines that they have something in common with. Both inmates and dogs had behavior problems that removed them from society. The dogs were facing euthanization for not conforming to the rules. The inmates were facing time behind bars for breaking the law. Both inmates and dogs had a future that looked bleak.  

Susan Yelton and Cathy Sherman, members of Citizens for Humane Animal Treatment, Crawfordville, NF, are responsible for initiating an innovative dog training program at Wakulla Correctional Institute in Crawfordville, Florida. Their idea originated from a program in Texas, Paws for Prison. 

When Yelton and Sherman decided to ascertain whether a dog training program would work in North Florida, their first challenge was convincing Russell Hosford, warden for Wakulla Correctional Institution that it was a good idea to bring misbehaved mutts from the humane society to live with inmates for two months. Hosford’s initial reaction was, "You have to be kidding me; do you mean dogs will be living in the prison barracks with the inmates?''

Yelton and Sherman convinced the warden to allow the program by explaining how inmates and dogs will benefit from the program. Inmates will learn a skill and the dogs will be eligible for new homes.

Jay King, who considers himself a dog whisperer, was the perfect match to take on the unconventional project. He took his passion for dogs to another level when he was offered the opportunity to teach prisoners how to train dogs. 

When King accepted the employment he was warned he needed to be an inmate whisperer as well. King had no trouble fulfilling the requirements of the job because he believes both ill behaved canines and humans have something good on the inside that was snuffed out by something that happened to them as children or puppies.

King’s inspiration for training dogs originated from his job as a mail carrier in Tallahassee, where no dog was too ferocious to be his friend. King arrived into this world as a mixture of Chinese, Hispanic, African American, and American Indian. "Just like most of my dogs” King admits, “I'm a mutt.''  

King’s approach to dog training is a model for how humans should be treated. His philosophy for dealing with dogs and mankind is understanding what they are thinking and enforcing reward over punitive action. King deems the opposite is what landed the inmates in prison and the dogs in the pound.  

The inmate’s team mantra is “WE ARE A PACK.” King’s truism is that humans and animals are all pack animals. 

Dog breeds are considered for matching dogs to inmates for training.

King appropriately chooses Pooh for a big burley inmate by the mane of Mc Moulin because he can handle a large strong pooch like Pooh. Joshua Allen inmate, who has a tattoo inscribed with the words“Crazy White Boy” is assigned to Jax, a Lab-Rottweiler mix, and Howard Preston IV, inmate No. 469666, a former cocaine manufacturer, gets Reba, a high-strung red bone hound. Preston plans to open a dog obedience training school when he is released in 2017.   

By the time inmates are ready to graduate from the dog training program they have learned communication and anger management skills that can be transferred to their daily lives when they reenter into the real world. Dog training can also be added to their resume when searching for employment.

At graduation day it is evident these hard-core criminals are converted into “softies.”

Robert E. Shull, convicted of torching a truck, gives his dog, Walker, a long hug and pleads to be assured Walker will get a new home and not be put to sleep.

"My dream is to gradually spend less and less time at the prison," says the dog whisperer. King’s plan is to pass the dog training baton to his graduates. He hopes each trained “pack” will train the next “pack.”

Warden Hosford is now sold on the program. "The idea is that when you get out of here, you're a better person," the warden says. "You've learned something worth learning and you're qualified for some kind of job.''

The recidivism rate for prisoners who are referred to Wakulla’s “Faith and Character”-based institution is low. According to the warden the, 93% of the inmates that participate in the life skills programs the prison offers do not return.  

Thanks to a seasoned street wise fellow from the Bronx with a heavy New York accent, both the inmates and Fido now have been given another shot at living a purposeful life.