How the Jail Dogs Program Is Rescuing Dogs and Prisoners Alike
"The initial idea behind Jail Dogs was to help create some space in our local Animal Control by housing some of the dogs here in the detention center," says Stephanie Martinez-Peres, the chief coordinator of the Jail Dogs program in Gwinnett County. "We also wanted to treat inmates how to train dogs to hopefully give them a line of work when they get out."
Since starting in February of 2010, Stephanie says the Jail Dogs program is now considered a success: The dogs are rescued from death row at the local Animal Control, while the supervised inmates are charged with training the dogs to the point where they are ready to be adopted by local families. As a veterinary technician who studied similar courses during school, Stephanie says the set-up is a win-win situation.
I talked to Stephanie about the philosophy behind Jail Dogs, how the inmates first reacted to the idea, and found out about some of the most notable pooches to have passed through the program.
Dogster: Who was the first official Jail Dog?
Stephanie Martinez-Peres: Well, there was a group that came over all at once. It was about five of them who were all together on the first day.
Which dog was the most memorable of the initial bunch?
This dog named Sugar who was a little, short mix breed, who had a kind of a Pug nose. She was really cute and really reactive to all of the dogs. She thought she was the toughest dog. She was really funny looking, and the inmate who was training her did a really good job at helping her being around other dogs. She ended up going to a home with another dog, and now they're best friends.
Do the dogs themselves ever come into the program with behavioral issues?
We don't really know what we're getting. We go to Animal Control and we look at what dogs are going to be euthanized -- they only get about five days there. There are so many to pick from, so the rescue group at Animal Control helps whittle it down to which dogs they think have good personalities for the program. Then from that, we do some temperament testing to see if there's any aggression we can see. It's a hard environment for a dog with aggression issues here, because there's a lot going on. Sometimes once they're here and they have issues, we work on those with the trainers here who help us.
Have you found that certain breeds of dogs make for better Jail Dogs?
No, it's just all depending on the dog's personality. We take everything from little Chihuahuas to Great Dane mixes. With the Chihuahuas, some are really shy and some are really outgoing and think they're really tough and want to fight every dog. So it just depends on the personality. The breed doesn't matter so much.
What sort of concerns did you have when you began the program?
The main concern was what to expect from the inmates. Dogs are dogs -- they're happy to be saved. So even though it's jail to us, for them it's like, "Hey, look at my new house, I'm in jail, it's great!" The dogs are great. The inmates were the ones we weren't really sure about. We screen them, so they can't have any violent or sexual offenses. But we've found that the inmates do great and learn a lot from the program and they help each other if they're struggling.
Were any of the inmates cynical about the program?
Well, at first some of them were in the program because they thought it might look good in court! They got weeded out pretty fast, but most of them were really happy to have a roommate who didn't judge them based on what they'd done in the past, that didn't try to steal their candy, and didn't snore at night. They were really happy to have something in their lives that made them feel more hopeful.
What's the set up in terms of how the Jail Dogs program is implemented?
We have about 35 inmates in there and we have between 15 and 18 dogs. Each dog has a primary handler, and the dog lives in their cell and sleeps with them at night. The handler is charged with feeding them, giving them medication and training them. Then we have a secondary handler that's newer to the unit, and they're helping with the dog in case the primary handler gets released -- that way the dog already knows the secondary handler. Then during the day during the free-time hours, the inmates and the dogs are in the community area of the unit together -- the dogs are on their leashes when inside, but they can be off-leash outside.
In a best-case scenario, what does the inmate gain from the program?
They learn about positive reinforcement, what it feels like to be loved unconditionally, and they also learn responsibility and hopefully learn the profession of dog training for when they get out.
Who's been the most notable Jail Dogs graduate so far?
I think Brauny. He was a dog who was found in an abandoned foreclosed house. He almost starved to death -- when they found him they didn't think he was alive, because he was lying in the kitchen with his head on the floor in a frying pan. It turns out he was just barely alive, so he was hospitalized for a while until it got to a point where they thought he was strong enough to do well with us.
The inmates did a great job with Brauny, because they were with him for 24 hours a day -- when we have a sick dog, it's like they basically get around-the-clock care. He couldn't walk at first because he was so weak but the inmate got him walking and actually fed him up to the point where he was a little overweight! Then he went to a home and is really loved by the lady he lives with and another dog.
Recently, there was someone outside the lady's house and Brauny jumped through her plate-glass window and bit the guy -- it turned out the guy was looking to rob houses in the neighborhood, so he caught a robber! We never saw an aggressive side to Brauny ever so we were all surprised to hear that, but it turned out he caught a bad guy.
Finally, who has the better toilet facilities -- the inmates or the dogs?
I guess it depends if you like nature or not!
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