TIPTON, Mo. - Correctional facilities nationwide have implemented a number of rehabilitation services for inmates while time is served. One such program allows them to train, rehabilitate and love dogs.
Puppies for Parole offers inmates a chance to give dogs from area animal shelters who have been abandoned, mistreated by owners, or are too long-in-the-tooth to be adopted into forever homes.
The program was started in Missouri in 2010 and has since been placed into 25 correctional centers. Tipton Correctional Center is one of those 25 and the dogs come from Dogwood Animal Shelter, Camdenton.
Restorative Justice Coordinator David Scott has worked with the program since its inauguration.
"Twice a week, they come in here to watch instructional training videos and use equipment to help the dogs agility," Scott said of the separate training building. "We've got a teeter totter, a ramp, weave poles and a jump. It's all part of the confidence course."
As of right now, TCC boasts 21 active dog handlers whose full-time job is to take care of the furry friends. The dogs are housed with the inmates in a housing unit close to the training building. There are 10 four-man rooms in the housing unit and those rooms with a dog have two handlers living in the same room. While not every room houses a dog, those that do hold a kennel for night time and a baby gate for when the dog is not in the kennel.
In order for the inmates to be placed in the program, they must put in an application and go through a rigorous screening process. The inmate must not have any violations for drugs; sexual misconduct; violations with the elderly, women or children; and, Scott said, "obviously, no issues with animals."
The goal of Puppies for Parole is simply to get the dogs adopted. This effort has proven to be wildly successful as, from TCC alone, 221 dogs have made it through the program with 104 being adopted, 62 of which were adopted by center employees. Even Scott himself adopted a dog from the program.
About twice a month, Jennifer Winkelman from Mid-Mo Dog Training, Jefferson City, visits with the offenders to give them even more training advice.
"I've been going there almost four years now," Winkelman said. "We just go over the basics and the best way to learn is to teach. So, I have the offenders that have been in the program for awhile answer questions any new offenders to the program may have.
"We go over basic obedience and work with the American Kennel Club certification. Right now, we work on about 10 things in the certification that we try to get each dog to accomplish."
She said one of the biggest items she works on with the inmates is problem solving.
"Positive reinforcement is used, if the dog is having some kind of a problem," she said. "We work with the offenders on how we can solve it, positively. You know, life is full of problems, so they sort out how we can talk this all through with positive motivation to work these problems out. It's a really important part of the program."
Inmate Arthur Park has worked with Puppies for Parole for 11 months and said he "believes in the program."
"It's a lot more than just training dogs," Park said. "We're training each other. We're rehabilitating the dogs and ourselves at the same time. I see a real connection with the dogs we help and us."
The mutual understanding of being in a shelter of sorts has boosted morale, not only with the dogs, but also the inmates who take care of them.
"This is a real mind-opener for some of us, and it's gotten us a little out of our comfort zone," inmate Theodore Thomas said. "We get to interact with other people and the dogs get to interact with other dogs. That and the dogs need treats and praise, just like us."
Most cycles of Puppies for Parole run eight to 10 weeks.
Every morning starts the same, with an 8 a.m. meeting outside to walk the dogs back and forth on the grounds. After the walk, offenders continue training the dogs, which is a constant job. Along with the training, offenders learn their dog's personalities and overall demeanors, even their fears.
"All the guys have to write in a big ol' book each week," Scott said. "Maybe their dog had a hard time making it through a thunderstorm, or they get skittish around certain things. We ask the guys to write about all of that, as often as they can."
For those wondering how the food, leashes, kennels and other animal care materials are funded, Scott emphasized not one penny from taxes is used for Puppies for Parole.
All of the food is donated by Royal Canine, he said.
"Everything else comes from fundraisers the offenders participate in. They all help to fund the dogs. One time, we had a fundraiser for Chinese food and I think we got $1,000 in profit from that."
Canteen sales, as well as sales from Puppies for Parole T-shirts, go toward the program with a small stipend sent to the central office for a wish list.
While the offenders may benefit from the program with an earned sense of purpose and responsibility, the dogs also come out of the program in a much better light.
"We had one old lady come here from Dogwood that was found on the side of the road," Scott said. "They think she was beaten pretty badly or shot at. The trauma really did a number on her. But she was just a darling from the beginning. After a while, her head was held high and she knew just how much she was loved. She was eventually adopted by a family who loved her just as much as we did."
This love has an impact on the inmates, too.
"When people come here to take dogs home," Scott said. "I go to the housing unit to get the dogs and bring them back to the lobby for their new families. Sometimes the guy who trained that dog will stand outside and watch me walk away with the dog, tears in his eye."
Scott said a handful of inmates work to become licensed dog trainers, while still incarcerated. This training is through the Department of Labor and requires thousands of hours of training. But the work is more than worth it to the offenders.
"When in here, the dogs get better and the guys learn things they never would have imagined," Scott said. "Other inmates may think the guys get special treatment, but that's absolutely not true. They have to work hard from day one to even stay in the program."
Scott added one more important point to the program.
"These guys made mistakes, just like anybody else would," he said. "But we got lucky. The bottom line is that every single one of us is human, the offenders included."
On the web: doc.mo.gov/programs/puppies-parole