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Why Are Prisoners In Vandalia, Missouri Spending A Lot Of Time With Dogs?

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(Courtesy Photo / Used With Permission)
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Having prisoners train service dogs may seem like an unusual combination but in rural eastern Missouri, that’s exactly what’s been happening for more than a decade.

Training service dogs requires a lengthy time commitment and it can be difficult to find people that are both willing and realistically able to make it. 

In 2002, the Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities (C.H.A.M.P) organization found a creative solution to the problem by collaborating with the Missouri Department of Corrections.  Through the C.H.A.M.P. Prison Program, the offenders at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia are paired with dogs that need to be trained.

Pam Bolton, executive director of C.H.A.M.P., told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh that the female offenders benefit from the relationship as do the dogs.  “Many of these women have been abused. Sometimes the relationship with the dog is the first positive relationship they’ve had.”

The decision to start the program in a women’s prison was based on the idea that women may be more innately nurturing. “Many offenders say that after the prison program they believe they will be better parents and grandparents,” Bolton said, emphasizing the demonstrable maternal quality that is fostered in the inmates throughout their time in the program.

Bolton said there is little data to show whether participation in the program lessens the chances of offenders returning to prison. She said the organization is currently working with Washington University in St. Louis to conduct a study to find out whether participating reduces recidivism.

The Offender-Trainer Experience

“I just loved being around the dogs… I loved every minute once I joined,” one former offender-trainer told Don Marsh. 

At her request, we referred to her as “Kathy” because she did not want her identity disclosed for professional reasons.

Kathy participated in the Prison Program as an inmate and after being released, was offered a position with the C.H.A.M.P. organization.

Kathy was first interested when she heard that the program would be brought to Vandalia, however at the time she was supporting herself and she had a job in prison that was considered a “premium pay slot.” Although she felt she could not afford to sacrifice her fulltime position, she began volunteering in the “dog-wing.” After three years of volunteering she applied to the program fulltime.

“This program has given me confidence, a purpose… I didn’t think that being in prison I could help people on the outside, but I did,” Kathy said.

The trainers are assigned a variety of breeds including golden retrievers, golden doodles, and Labrador retrievers. The puppies are house broken by puppy raisers and brought to the prison at about the age of four months. It takes 18-24 months to fully train the service dogs. Throughout that time the puppies alternate their time in the prison with their puppy raisers.  The ability to adapt to the changing environment is a necessary quality for a service dog. “They are just thrilled to come back to prison.  It’s like party time with them because they get so much attention,” Kathy said.

The Trainer-Dog Connection

The time the dogs spend in prison is “not all work,” said Kathy. “We do training throughout the day but only in very small increments…  because we always want the dog to want more and we always end it with them being happy and thinking ‘What’s next?!’” 

“It’s really remarkable how a dog can put a smile on somebody’s face,” Kathy said about the impacts of having the dogs around the prison. The effect of the dogs was not limited to inmate-dog interaction.  The presence of the dogs changed the way the inmates interacted with each other. “We [would] all brainstorm what works and cheer each other on.  We [were] also a little competitive with each other as well.”

Letting Go

The hardest part can be letting go and that was certainly the case for Kathy.  After the training, “it was very difficult,” she said. The first one, I didn’t know how I was going to get through it, but they were really good with bringing in a second dog… they also serve as a therapy dog and help you through it. It keeps your mind occupied.”

After her release, Kathy said she ran into one of the first dogs she had trained. “He was so excited to see me he barely could contain himself. One thing you can say is they do not forget their past and who was important in their lives,” she said.

Looking for advice for your dog? 

Kathy’s tips for training are short and sweet: Speak kindly, smile at them, cheer them on, and just be the best friend that they’re trying to be with you.

For more information visit the C.H.A.M.P. website.

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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