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Inmates train shelter dogs to be model canine citizens

Jessica Knight put Leo through his paces.

"Down. Good down, Leo." She fed the shepherd mix some kibble. "Stay. Good stay, Leo." More kibble.

If you want to adopt a dog with Canine Good Citizen certification from the American Kennel Club – the gold standard for good-dog behavior and basic obedience training – then you’ll want a dog that has spent six weeks in jail.

Knight, who is serving an 8-month sentence, is one of five female inmates at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden who trains dogs as part of the Pups at the Pen program. The program started in 2016 in partnership with the Erie County SPCA. The program has recently been upgraded to turn untrained dogs into nationally certified, model-worthy pets.

"The Canine Good Citizen program really wasn't designed for shelter life," said Matt Cicatello, the SPCA's director of behavior and training.

Living with inmates offers a more homelike environment for dogs.

"I hate to say they get freedom when they go out to a jail, but they do," he said.

The benefit isn't one-way. Pups at the Pen helps inmates.

Of 61 women who have participated in the jail program since its inception, only 15 have returned. That represents a reoffense rate of 25%, more than three times less than the overall reoffense rate for both the Holding Center and Correctional Facility, said Thomas Diina, superintendent of the Erie County Sheriff's Jail Management Division.

Pups at the Pen is one of two animal programs at the Correctional Facility. While female inmates train rescue dogs, roughly 60 male inmates a year raise pheasants – 1,800 this year alone – to help restock state forests prior to fall hunting season.

The Pups at the Pen program provides inmates affection and teaches them compassion and empathy.

"It helps being with them when I'm here," said inmate Nicole Andrews, who said she has mental health and anxiety issues.

Nicole Andrews, an inmate at the Erie County Correctional Facility, trains Leo, an SPCA rescue dog. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Housing the program

Both the Erie County Holding Center and the Correctional Facility are part of the same county jail system.

But the rural Alden facility houses about 420 inmates who tend to be low- to medium-risk offenders. The correctional facility also has more room to house inmate rehabilitation programs involving animals.

Pups at the Pen is modeled after programs at state prisons. Since 2016, female inmates at the Correctional Facility have trained 47 dogs.

Diina recalled a few memorable canine trainees.

There was Chowder, a hyperactive and hulking 81-pound dog who also happened to be deaf. She was such a tough case that she went through the six-week program twice. She ultimately was adopted.

Then there was a female dog who came to the correctional facility with a litter of puppies.

"I thought there was going to be a fight in the staff dining room about who was going to get to adopt them," Diina said.

The inmate trainers last completed training with Caesar, a shy Doberman with separation anxiety issues. When he left, the inmates were bereft.

"It was very emotional," Knight said.

Life behind bars

The Pups at the Pen housing unit is home to five inmates, who now work with two 6-month old dogs, Leo and Athena, a Rottweiler mix.

Inmate participants are nonviolent offenders with a clean track record in jail. The group includes women convicted on burglary, DWI and drug charges.

The dogs sent to live with the inmates have no major behavior issues but come to the SPCA without any training at all, Cicatello said. Some dogs might have special needs or be too loud or boisterous in a shelter environment to be a first choice for prospective owners.

Within a week of Leo's and Athena's appearance at the jail, they've been housebroken and learned how to sit, lie down, "leave it" and make eye contact on cue despite distractions.

The inmates say they bond more strongly with each other, as well as the dogs, even though they may start out with little in common. It's a program that fosters growth for everyone, said inmate Savannah Adams.

Baughman was sentenced to jail for 8 1/2 months after failing a court-mandated drug program. She says the dogs give her hope that she can survive in the outside world without drugs or alcohol.

"I can be happy without drinking," she said. "The dogs make that possible."

SPCA rescue dogs Athena (white) and Leo. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Canine Good Citizen

Within the last two months, the Pups at the Pen program has upgraded its training program so that dogs entering the Correctional Facility aren't just taught basic obedience but are taught behavioral and obedience skills that meet the Canine Good Citizen certification requirements of the American Kennel Club. This certification is required by most therapy dog groups.

Aside from learning basic commands, the dogs must be accepting of friendly strangers, allow themselves to be petted by people they don't know, respond to sudden distractions without panic or aggression, behave politely toward other dogs, and withstand temporary separation from their owner without whining or agitation.

A staffer from Sit n' Stay Pet Services in Orchard Park travels to the Correctional Facility once a week to educate the inmates on training techniques to enable dogs to meet the Canine Good Citizen standard.

The intensive training could not easily be offered by the SPCA because it doesn't offer the same consistency and structure, said Kim Sauer, owner of Sit n' Stay.

"It is, in my opinion, a little more like what the family dynamic would be in a real home," she said.

With all the training, even if the dogs don't pass the Good Canine Citizen test at the end of six weeks, they're still appealing to prospective adopters, who can complete the training, Sauer said.

Pheasant rearing

Pups at the Pen is limited to female inmates now, but male inmates at the Correctional Facility look after another animal – the feathered kind. Since 2016, they have raised nearly 5,000 pheasants as part of a game bird restocking program sponsored by the Department of Environmental Conservation, which runs from early May to mid-October.

The program started in 2016 with inmates raising 1,500 birds that year from newborn hatchlings to full-grown birds with bright flags of color around the eyes. This year, inmates are raising 1,800 birds, the highest number yet.

"When we first got the babies, I didn't realize how cute they were," said inmate Mark Evans, referring to the first batch of 850 egg-sized hatchlings that first crowded under the heat lamps in the hay-filled shed.

"They looked like little Tweety birds," said inmate Lamont Hamilton. "The best part is seeing them grow, watching them mature."

The worst part – the smell.

As the pheasants get older, inmates attach foam or plastic blinders to obscure their forward vision so they don't attack other birds. Then they are released into large, grassy flight pens with bell-shaped feeders and shelters for shade. When they are released into state-owned forests in Zoar Valley each fall, the inmates who helped look after the birds travel there to watch the release.

"They're pretty psyched," said corrections officer Bill Moss, who supervises the pheasant program. "It’s a good behavior-modification tool. They don’t want to get into any incidents in the jail that’s going to jeopardize their participation in the program."

The pheasant program has grown the past three years. But Pups at the Pen has not – limited by the number of eligible inmates who want to participate, said corrections sergeant Deanna Lates. Limited access to outdoor grass is also a factor.

Cicatello, the SPCA's director of behavior and training, and Diina said they would like see the program grow.

"I think the more we get people excited about the program, the more there will be a desire to expand," Cicatello said.

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