When Confinement Leads to a Fresh Start:
SPCA Serving Erie County Dogs and the Erie County Correctional Facility Team Up for the “PUPS AT THE PEN” Program

July 12, 2016

By: SPCA Director of Public Relations Gina Browning

It’s not a new concept, but for SPCA dogs, it could be a new beginning.

When Erie County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) Jail Management Division Superintendent Thomas Diina contacted the SPCA Serving Erie County in February of 2016, programs that involve shelter dogs trained in prisons and correctional facilities were already underway, some for several years, in various parts of the country.  The programs were reported as beneficial not only to the dogs, who received a level of attention and training nearly impossible to achieve in a shelter environment, but also to the mental health of inmates.

To SPCA Director of Behavior and Training Barbara Frazier, the ECSO's proposal, that female Erie County Correctional Facility (ECCF) inmates, trained by SPCA representatives, work with SPCA dogs over an extended period of time, definitely warranted discussion. Now, Pups at the Pen, premiering in July, 2016, is the newest program facilitated by the SPCA and the ECSO.

Diina, Frazier, and ECSO Public Information officer Scott Zylka responded to questions about this “adoption readiness partnership” developing in Erie County, NY:

How was Pups at the Pen conceived?
D: I heard about similar programs in other counties in New York State, and reached out to the SPCA through a friend on the (SPCA’s) Board of Directors.

Why bring this program to our community?
D: ECSO is seeking to provide meaningful, rehabilitative programming to the inmate population, while at the same time, assist the SPCA in its efforts to find forever homes for the many dogs surrendered.
F:  The SPCA receives dogs that are fantastic adoption candidates. They just don't do well in a shelter environment. Having this setting to provide intensive socialization and basic obedience training may, at the very least, make these dogs more desirable adoption candidates.

What are some of the other facilities that host similar programs?
D: Albany County Correctional Facility has reported extremely positive results. Columbia County Jail [hosts a program as well].
F: Mohawk Hudson Humane Society works with Albany County Correctional Facility on that program. It started in April, 2013, and is called STAR: Steps to Adoption Readiness. Our program is somewhat modeled after that. The Gulf Coast Humane Society works with a facility and a representative there reports, “Yes, we are very pleased with our Second Chance Pals program. I have seen changes in the inmates chosen to be handlers in the program. We see the inmates really take ownership and pride in their dogs.” There is also the Inmate Dog Alliance Project of Idaho with the Idaho Humane Society. Their program received glowing reviews from their Behavior and Adoption Program representatives. Here are excerpts from the organization’s response to my questions:
“I can tell you the impact is surely a positive one. I am told that the inmates participating in the program usually have some of the best behavior records and the units where the dogs live tend to be the least problematic. Many inmates in the program no longer require medication for things like depression or anxiety. We have dogs in three southern Idaho prisons and one of them has a mental health ward. The dogs at this facility are often taken to that unit to help boost morale and engage the mental health inmates. So the impact of the dogs goes beyond [positively impacting] the trainers themselves.”

What are some of the specific dog-related goals of the program?
F: Teaching them valuable skills that lead to increased adoptability. We’d like them to be socialized with a variety of people and sights/sounds in a safe and contained environment. Also, there are those dogs who have trouble with a kennel environment (but they’re safe to interact with), and if selected for Pups at the Pen, they’ll receive a reprieve where they can continue to gain confidence. Hopefully, once program dogs are returned to the shelter, their lengths of stay will decrease because of what they’ve learned from their trainers at the ECCF.

What are some of the inmate-related goals of the program?
D: [We’d like the inmates to experience] improved self-esteem, a sense of responsibility, and an additional sense of purpose in daily life while incarcerated.
Z: [We’d like the inmates to] learn skills that can be transferable to employment.

Who selects the dogs?
F: Members of the SPCA's Behavior and Training Department. 

What qualities do dogs exhibit that lead to selection?
F: Dogs that will be eligible for the program will need to display a few qualities that indicate they will be safe in the ECCF environment. They’ll need to demonstrate an ability to be around other dogs, and especially an ability to be around a variety of environments and new people.

Who selects the inmates?
D: Inmates are selected by the ECSO and are subject to a comprehensive screening process to ensure they are appropriate for the program.

What qualities do the inmates exhibit that lead to selection?
D: Low-security risk with a history of good institutional conduct.

How many dogs will be part of the program initially?
F: Two, initially. Once all parties are comfortable with the program, there could be as many as four at a time.

How many inmates will be part of the program initially?
D: Fifteen inmates. Each dog will have a primary and secondary handler, but all inmates will be involved with socialization and care of the dogs.
F: There will be a lead and secondary trainer assigned to each dog, and all of the women in the pod will be participating in interacting with the dogs and securing cues, encouraging polite behaviors.

When a dog is transported to ECCF, how long is the anticipated stay?
F: Six weeks.

How are the inmates being trained to train the dogs?
F: We will present an initial training to include understanding body language, basic information on how dogs learn, how to behave around the dogs, and more to all inmates that will be on the pod in which the dogs will be living. At session one, we’ll bring the first two dogs, and the lead and secondary trainers for each dog will be more intensively trained on handling. They’ll be given “homework” for the week. Each additional week, an SPCA trainer will visit and meet with the inmates; we’ll build on what was covered the week(s) prior and expand on the training of manners, special skills and tricks, and necessary socialization.
Z: Inmates will be responsible for learning assigned training materials and implementing the teaching as part of the program with SPCA Behavior and Training representatives. It’s a continual learning program.

What will the dogs be learning?
F: The dogs will be learning first and foremost the basic skills that adopters look for when considering adding a dog to their families. They’ll learn the skills one might learn in a basic obedience class (sit, down, stay, and more), but they’ll also learn about how to live in a crate, share space with multiple people and dogs, and will have a great foundation of basic manners and skills for an eventual adopter to build upon.

What will the inmates be learning?
D: How to care for and train the dogs, and [how to take] personal responsibility.

What happens at the end of the training term?
D: We will present inmates with certificates marking completion of the program.
F: There will be a graduation ceremony! We’d like to create certificates with the dogs’ pictures on them, and there are other things we’d like to do to make it special.

Once a dog is returned to the SPCA after completing the program, what do staff and volunteers need to do to sustain the training the dog has already received?

F: Inmate trainers will have kept a daily journal of each dog’s progress, what he has learned and how quickly he learned, cues he is responding to, habits, likes, dislikes, and more. With this information supplied to us by the inmates who have worked with the dog, we will be able to create a short-term shelter life plan to keep the dog on track with his training. Given the highly-adoptable nature of dogs with such intense training, the hope is that they will be able to quickly find new families who will continue their training in a home environment.

How will a dog trained at ECCF be identified at the SPCA?
D: We’ll allow the ECSO logo on SPCA adoption paperwork with information denoting that the dog was trained in the Pups at the Pen program.
F: We will have some kind of notation on these dogs’ kennels and in places where the dog is pictured, like the SPCA's website. We’ll further hope that visitors will already be looking to meet these dogs, who, ideally, will be ready to enter a new home environment already having learned great skills.

Quick adoption will hopefully be next for the dog. Will the dog’s adopter be familiar with the training routine that should be continued, if necessary?
F: The journal information provided by the inmates who worked with the dog will go with the dog’s new family. All skills that the dogs have learned while in the program will be clearly outlined.

What will be next for the inmates who participate in the program? Will each move on to the next dog, or will there be just one training opportunity per stay at ECCF?
D: The inmates will remain a part of the Pups at the Pen program until their release or, if necessary, until removal from the program for cause.

What do you hope to see at the end of Year One? Do you plan on expanding the program if it meets goals and proves to be successful?
D: The ECSO would like to see decreased recidivism amongst inmate participants, maybe even possible post-release employment at an animal rescue or shelter. We would certainly be open to expanding the program should the pilot prove successful!
F: We're hoping to see decreases in undesirable behaviors such as jumpy/mouthy arousal, fearfulness, housetraining and polite leash walking, and a decreased length of stay when the dogs are returned to the SPCA. We would love to see as many dogs benefit from this program as possible. As long as there are willing inmates and dogs in need, expansion of the program is definitely a long-term goal for us!

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See the first Pups at the Pen video here. Continuing information on Pups at the Pen, along with photos and videos of four-footed grads, will be shared periodically on YourSPCA.org, on the SPCA’s Facebook page (SPCA Serving Erie County, NY) and on the SPCA’s Twitter account (YourSPCA) . See the Pups at the Pen program announcement from the ECSO here.