Healing Inmates' Hearts and Spirits with Man's Best Friend

Article excerpt

Last year, the Corrections Corporation of America's Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colo., established a dog-training program using inmate dog handlers to provide trained canines to community agencies serving those in need, such as handicapped individuals and terminally ill patients. The Service Dog Training Program was implemented at KCCC on March 1, 2002, and by the beginning of this year, nine dogs and 20 inmate handlers were participating in the program. In conjunction with the CARES--Canine Assistance, Rehabilitation, Education and Services--program, the training program at KCCC has not only added jobs for inmates, but also provided therapeutic benefits by healing inmates' hearts and spirits, using man's oldest companion.

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CCA programs seek to rehabilitate individuals by providing access to better educational and vocational skills, assistance in fighting addictions and training in basic life skills to ease inmates' transition back into society. KCCC is a level-3, medium-security facility with 768 inmates.

CARES Inc. is a nonprofit local organization established in spring 1994 in Concordia, Kan., with a mission to use trained dogs to provide services to the elderly and disabled children and adults that allow them to live as independently as possible. The CARES program offers a variety of services, including search and rescue dog training.

When the CARES program began receiving requests for trained dogs more quickly than it could fill them, KCCC staff, who were familiar with similar programs in other states, considered offering their assistance. So in response to a community need for handlers to train the canines, management decided to introduce the CARES program into the facility and name it the KCCC Service Dog Training Program.

The CARES organization receives puppies and/or adult dogs for the canine assistance program in a variety of ways, including donations from breeding professionals and dog rescue programs at local shelters. KCCC receives only purebred puppies through local 4-H clubs in the Colorado and Kansas areas. The program primarily uses Labrador retrievers, Australian shepherds, German shepherds and golden retrievers, although the current class includes a personable Welsh corgi. These breeds tend to be smart, quick learners and affectionate, making them perfect program candidates.

Before graduating from the program, the donated dogs must pass preliminary temperament and health testing. One graduate of the KCCC program, an Australian shepherd named Wade, completed advanced training and is now a therapeutic support service dog for an autistic child in Nebraska. The dog assists the child with her daily living activities, helps her avoid dangerous situations and acts as an emotional support agent.

Program Components

CARES staff provide orientation and instruction to inmate trainers and once the approximately four hours of initial handler training is concluded, they hold information sessions once a month to check their progress and answer questions. Inmates volunteer for the program and must meet certain criteria to participate. They must maintain a disciplinary-free status for one year, have no sex offenses, comply with the program and receive satisfactory or above-average reviews. Participants must also pledge to stay in the program for 18 months and are paid between $1.50 and $2.50 per day. The program is so popular that one KCCC inmate turned down a community corrections placement in order to stay in the facility's dog training program. It is also popular among community members. The local Lions Club has helped fund the program by donating money to finance the care of the dogs.

The facility's program provides both baseline and advanced training for dogs that will fill these various roles. Baseline training consists of hand signals, basic commands and instructions. The dogs are placed with inmates who care for them 24 hours a day. …