Inmates train dogs to help others, themselves

The dog trainer and the prisoner urged the Labrador retriever with the perky ears to pick up a pen on the floor.

A.J., the dog, looked at the prisoner and then looked at the pen on the floor.

"Come on," said Jennifer Rogers, who teaches people who train dogs. "Don't give up on him."

Willie, the prisoner, gave the command again: "Get."

Other prisoners gathered in the room whispered, "Come on, A.J."

Finally, the dog grabbed the pen and dropped it into the prisoner's lap. Everyone cheered and applauded.

The scene took place Monday in a training room at Kershaw Correctional Institution in Lancaster County. There, a dozen inmates - the S.C. Department of Corrections did not allow the inmates to be identified by last names - are training four Labrador retrievers to be service dogs for people with physical and mental disabilities.

The dogs live in cells with the inmates, Mondays through Fridays. They spend weekends on the outside with foster families, who take them to public places, teaching them about such places as restaurants and movie theaters.

The dog-training program is teaching the prisoners too - about themselves.

"When we are teaching the dogs discipline, it also teaches us," said Laird, a prisoner convicted of assault and battery. "Like the instructor tells us, 'Slow is fast.' It's a matter of taking your time."

Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, a Columbia organization that trains service dogs and matches them with people in need, offered to introduce a training program within the S.C. Department of Corrections.

Rogers, PAALS' executive director, said she learned about similar programs while getting her dog training certification.

When Cecilia Reynolds, Kershaw's warden, heard about it at a department meeting, she jumped on the idea. She stays on the lookout for free programs for the 1,500 inmates under her charge.

"Trying to find something for all of them to do is difficult," Reynolds said. "The more you can find for the inmates to do, the less mischievous they become."

Reynolds, who owns three dogs, also approved a grooming program.

Correctional officer Jacob Knoop oversees three prisoners who are learning to wash and cut hair in the prison. They practice on prison employees' dogs. In January, 14 more prisoners will start grooming.

The dogs calm the inmates, Reynolds said, adding the dorm where the service dogs live has the fewest behavioral problems.

The dogs teach love, responsibility and discipline to the inmates, she said. Inmates learn they can't cut corners with the dogs' lessons.

"It's not always easy," she said.

Keith, a 54-year-old prisoner serving a life sentence for murder, said he has learned to have patience while working with a dog.

"Once it bonds with you, it works so much easier on its cues and commands," Keith said.

Keith said the work makes time pass a little more quickly. He volunteered for the dog training program because he wanted to do something to help other people. Plus, "I love dogs," he said.

The dogs, of course, don't mind living in a prison. They wag their tails while passing through security and when greeting the prisoners.

On Monday, the prisoners and dogs worked on flipping light switches on and off and on picking up objects such as the pens and cell phones.

Jordan instructed the prisoners to take small steps with their dogs.

When Willie and A.J. practiced picking up objects they started with A.J. grabbing his own leash from the floor.

Once A.J. picked up a pen, Willie asked him to get a cell phone. A.J. struggled with the command.

Willie repeated "Get." A.J. still did not follow instructions.

"Do you think he's going to do it?" Rogers asked.

"I believe in him," Willie said.

On this day, A.J. did not pick up the phone. So, Willie finished the exercise on a successful note, asking A.J. to pick up his leash. The dog received a treat.

"You want to set your dog up to succeed so it's fun for them and you have a good time while you're doing it," Rogers said

Rogers and Sheri Jordan, a PAALS volunteer, go to the prison for two hours, twice a week. They've watched the prisoners improve their dog-handling skills and warm up to the instructors and animals.

"These aren't guys who show their emotions," Rogers said.

Dog training is as much about people as it is the animals, she said.

"We talk about how they get success with their dogs," Rogers said. "Is it when they speak sharply? Or by being nice to them?

"They're not all going to be people who are great communicators. We're teaching them about how to handle each other as much as how to treat dogs."