Dogster Heads Behind Bars to Watch Prison Dogs at Work

We visit the Salinas Valley State Prison to meet prison dogs and talk with their handlers.


I went to a maximum-security prison last week, and I must say I enjoyed every minute of my stay. Fortunately, my time there didn’t entail an overnight. It did involve lots of dogs. So, of course, I was in heaven.

I visited the Salinas Valley State Prison/Correctional Training Facility at the invitation of Correctional Officer Christopher Salopek, who had read my book Soldier Dogs. He wanted to show me how similar prison dogs can be to military working dogs.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (I haven’t heard of much rehab going on in these places, but that’s part of the name now) has 33 prison dogs throughout the state. Each prison that employs sniffer dogs has two dogs: one narcotics-only dog and one contraband dog who detects narcotics, tobacco, and cellphones.

It was that last part that really got my attention: A dog who could sniff out cellphones?! Sign me up! The way we are always misplacing our phones, our family would keep a dog like this employed full-time. All I’d have to do would be to give him the “search” command, and before I knew it, he’d be barking and wagging at his find and I’d be playing tug-of-war as a reward and slathering him with praise.

I saw this happen several times when four handlers and their awesome dogs staged a demo for me at a mock prison dorm and a mock prison gym. The dogs who were trained to sniff out phones always found their quarry. Who among us would not want one of these beautiful dogs instead of an app like Find My iPhone? (Okay, those apps are pretty good, but they don’t give doggy kisses and happy wags!)

Possession of smuggled cellphones by inmates is a big problem right now. Salopek’s canine, Taser, has found more than 200 in the two years Salopek has been working with him. He recently found one in a meticulously rerolled roll of toilet paper, a feat that amazed the non-dog correctional officers.

The four dog teams are always in high demand for help with searches at institutions in the region. After all, dogs are super-accurate detectors, and it takes far less time to clear a building using dogs. For instance, I’m told that to search for contraband in two large buildings with 400 prison cells would take all day for 50 cops. For eight dog teams, it takes two and a half hours — and they’re likely able to find a lot more goodies.

I’ve read a few instances of narcotics-detector dogs paying for their finds with their lives. In their enthusiasm on searches, they got snootfuls of the drugs while detecting them, and died.

That’s where handler vigilance comes in. The men I interviewed spoke about trying to be on top of their dogs’ actions at all times and not letting them get in situations where they could ingest the drugs. If it happens, the handlers carry some fast-acting antidotes, but the protocol is to race the dogs to the vet if possible. They all hope never to face the day where something like this happens.

These dogs, after all, are counted among the officers’ best pals — sometimes the best pal. Unlike military dogs, who are also beloved by their handlers, these dogs get to go home with the officers at the end of the day. Since the dogs aren’t trained in patrol, they’re safe buddies to have around the house, even with kids.

None of the dogs in the prison program were purchased. They were all given to the department. Some are from shelters, while others were donated by breeders or people who had promising dogs they couldn’t quite deal with. With budget cuts hugely reducing funds everywhere in California government, this program probably wouldn’t exist if the prisons had to purchase its dogs. But because of the team’s resourcefulness, the program has been able to go from four dogs to 33 in the last four years. Pretty impressive stuff.

The program gets a gold star from me!

Now if only I can borrow one the next time I lose my cellphone ….

What do you think of these prison dogs? Now’s your chance to give ’em a well-deserved high-five. Bark at us in the comments!

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