A Prison Alliance: Dog Trainers and Veterans

By Dianne Frazee-Walker  Image courtesy www.brothersandrewdallas.org-

Springing retrievers and puppies are not the first thing one envisions when thinking about prison.   

A Texas women’s prison is reforming inmates and lowering recidivism rates as disabled veterans receive specially trained dogs to assist their every needs.

This is all taking place because a retired rural mail carrier had a desire to train dogs for aiding disabled veterans to live independently.

Lori Stevens initiated Patriot PAWS in 2006. Two years later, the program spiraled to a higher level when Christina Crain, the then chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice got wind of Patriot PAWS. Ms. Crain was so impressed by the program that she introduced PAWS to the state prison system. She envisioned how the program had the possibility of raising spirits behind bars and lowering the recidivism rate. 

When PAWS first took-off the dogs and inmates were a perfect match. At the time there was a demand for service dogs because returning veterans injured and disabled from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan needed help.

Patriot PAWS is a non-profit organization that gives 43 female inmate volunteers an opportunity to train dogs and serve disabled veterans all over the country. The canines have an opportunity to serve a double purpose. The dogs are not only a gift for the veterans, but they have a PAWSitive impact on the inmate’s lives.

Inside a large dormitory room in the Crain Unit of one of the many prisons in Gatesville, Texas, 33 inmates humbly share their stories about how the PAWS program has enriched their lives behind bars.

Ms. Goode, a 42-year-old former massage therapist convicted of shooting her Valentine’s Day date in the back of the head in 2002, tears up as she releases her dog Rocky, a black lab mix to 68-year-old Al Harmata, a Vietnam veteran.

Mr. Harmata, who today works as an eagle researcher at a Montana State University, welcomes Rocky as a valuable addition to his daily life. Goode trained Rocky to retrieve Mr. Harmata’s prosthetic extremities. Harmata lost his left arm and leg in the Vietnam War when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Goode emotionally expressed the fulfillment she felt from her participation in the PAWS program in front of the graduation audience, “This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to feel like I’m doing something for someone other than myself.” said Ms. Goode.

Patricia Ball, 58, a known dog lover, is an appropriate candidate for the PAWS program. She had to leave behind her five cherished dogs in San Antonio when she began her 15-year sentence for theft. Her family proclaims, “Only you could find dogs in prison.”

Kathy Allen, 39, a former methamphetamine producer on the streets of Lubbock, Texas, was recently promoted to the Patriot PAWS dorm after serving four years of her 15-year prison sentence. She went from consuming her life with methamphetamine to being consumed by the puppy she is training to be a PAWS service dog.

Such alliances between prisons and dog training nonprofits date back to 1981, when Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun, founded a program in Washington State. (A dramatized version of Sister Quinn’s story was told in a 2001 TV movie, “Within These Walls,” starring Laura Dern and Ellen Burstyn.) Now, such programs can be found in penal institutions in more than 30 states.

Since Patriot PAWS inception, they have placed more than 70 dogs with disabled veterans and have 99 qualifying veterans on a waiting list.

The dogs are trained to fetch anything from prosthetics to phones when their owners are in trouble. They are capable of getting help for their masters, but the dog’s most valuable asset is they have proved particularly advantageous in managing post-traumatic stress disorder — they can even be trained to wake someone up from a bad dream.

Training a service dog takes from 18 months to two years and, even with inmate labor, can cost up to $20,000. Patriot PAWS, which has 10 staff members and 70 volunteers outside the prison, does not charge veterans for their dogs and relies entirely on donations. Interested inmates are screened by the warden and by Ms. Stevens, and those selected move in to one of the dorms dedicated to the program.

Breeders donate the puppies — mostly Labradors, golden retrievers and Labradoodles — and they are brought to prison after they have had their second round of immunizations, typically at 10 weeks. Behind those barbed-wire fences, inmates spend eight to 10 hours a day teaching the puppies more than 80 basic obedience commands. The dogs rotate among the inmates, staying with each for up to eight weeks, accompanying them to school and church and sleeping in wire crates beside their beds.

After four months, the dogs are taken by volunteers outside the prison, who work on more specialized commands and socialize them to interact with the larger world, including learning how to sit quietly in movie theaters and on airplanes. The dogs are then brought back to prison for final polishing.

Patriot PAWS not only gives dogs a purpose and veterans relief from the difficulties of maintaining quality of life, but inmates have a second chance at reentering society with a life absent of crime.