Wanted: A four-legged rehab specialist, must love people

This month’s cover comes with a good story. Shea Wilson, communications administrator for the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) sent us the photo and wrote:

“This is Anthony (a former inmate) and Howard, a St. Bernard who was grossly underweight when he arrived in the program, weighing about 60 pounds. Anthony...recently paroled and adopted the last dog he trained at the Ouachita River Correctional Unit in Malvern, Ark. Howard found his forever home with a family that had another St. Bernard. He is now a healthy weight and a very happy dog.”

Animals have long occupied a four-legged foothold in policing. K-9 units are unmatched when it comes to detecting narcotics, hydrocarbon and cadavers. They dutifully provide that extra bit of “man” power on rescue missions. In a no-nonsense profession like law enforcement, it’s particularly intriguing to see how, exactly, animals fit in. But these intelligent creatures do more than patrol. Furry companions prove their worth inside prisons, too.

ADC partners with Central Arkansas Rescue Effort (CARE) out of Little Rock, Ark., as a rescue resource for Paws in Prison dogs like Howard. The privately funded organization places shelter dogs inside corrections facilities for approximately six weeks of hard-core obedience training and socialization in preparation for eventual adoption through CARE. Professional dog trainers impart their knowledge to inmates, who in turn train and care for the dogs around-the-clock.

It’s a feel-good approach with great results. Similar programs report 100 percent success rates, meaning after a rehabilitative period with inmates, dogs experience a marked improvement in health and wellbeing. They become fit for adoption into loving homes.

In some cases, the canines go on to become guides, service dogs, or military therapy dogs. America’s VetDogs (Smithtown, New York) undergo a basic training of sorts inside maximum security prisons so they might someday help a wounded veteran be more self-reliant.

It’s hard to say who benefits most. In a way it’s therapy for incarcerated handlers who nurture the animal while learning useful job skills like animal grooming and obedience training. The dynamic also bridges the gap between inmate and officer, lightening the mood and giving everyone something to talk about.

Dogs aren’t the only animals tasked with raising morale in the big house, either. Lincoln County (Nebraska) Jail adopts cats that live inside the facility. The felines purportedly decrease stress levels, and—apparently—the folks who live there line up to clean out litter boxes. In New Mexico, prisoners successfully gentled and re-homed wild mustangs (read more about this unique mission on page 12).

There’s a reason why prisons across the country adopt programs that incorporate animals into everyday life. They work.