Dog Training Changes Prison Inmates’ Lives

Shelter dogs and prisoners teach each other love and discipline
May 1, 2017 1:40 pm Last Updated: May 4, 2017 5:23 pm

In five Florida prisons, some inmates are learning how to train dogs, with stunning results.

The program is called TAILS, which stands for Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills. It takes shelter dogs with behavioral issues—those that tend not to get adopted—and places them in prisons, where a professional dog trainer leads a group of inmates in giving the dogs proper training.

In eight to 12 weeks, the dogs undergo a tremendous transformation.

“When the dogs come in, they’re hard to handle, they’re in poor health, they look bad,” said Officer Lisa Irre, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s K9 coordinator, in a video on the TAILS program website. “By the time the eight weeks is up, they’re totally different dogs.”

A prison inmates, TAILS program participants, with their dogs.  (Courtesy of Craig O'Neal)
Prison inmates participating in the TAILS program, with their dogs in this file photo.
(Courtesy of Craig O’Neal)

Last year, 203 dogs entered the program and 202 of them found new homes after graduating.

Even greater changes await the human participants.

“A lot of guys that come in here hard and tough and rough—the dogs always bring out their softer side,” Irre said, in the video.

The program not only teaches the inmates how to train dogs, but also teaches them crucial life skills like having patience, acting responsibly, and working well with others (every dog has two handlers, who must work together).

A prison inmate and TAILS program participant with his dog.  (Courtesy of Craig O'Neal)
A prison inmate and TAILS program participant with his dog in this file photo.
(Courtesy of Craig O’Neal)

The dogs have kennels inside their handlers’ cells and spend most of their time with them, forming a strong bond. When the training program is up, some convicts bid farewell to their canines with tearful eyes, said Jen Deane, dog trainer and director of Pit Sisters, the nonprofit that runs the program. But within a few days, the inmates get new dogs to train and bond with.

Behavior problems are virtually nonexistent among the inmates—those who get into trouble are kicked out of the program. Moreover, the program helps them find jobs after their release.

New Chance

Deane thinks part of the reason why prisoners do well with the dogs is because the dogs don’t judge them.

She tries to do the same. Both the dogs and the inmates are getting a second chance through the program, and so she makes a point of not looking at the criminal records of the participants.

“I don’t want to know,” she said. “I want to see them for how they are now.”

A prison inmate and TAILS program participant with his dog.  (Courtesy of Craig O'Neal)
A prison inmate and TAILS program participant with his dog in this file photo.
(Courtesy of Craig O’Neal)

Many have changed dramatically. One of the inmates sent this letter to the program describing how it had affected him:

“I came to this place full of hate and resentment. I’ve lost everyone and everything I ever had. Several times over. Why, Lord, am I here? And then he showed me—these wonderful creatures. All alone, locked up for the sole crime of being born into a world that does not want them, seen as mean and vicious. Yet here they are, showing me what unconditional love really is and giving me back my heart. I hope and plan to help these dogs as long as God will allow.”