A program pairing prisoners with canines is a new endeavor on which the Elk County Humane Society and the State Correction Institute-Forest in Marienville are embarking in a multifaceted effort of adopting out dogs, assisting military veterans and providing inmates with confidence.
Recently SCI-Forest personnel Michael Overmyer, deputy superintendent for centralized services; and Brenda Haupt, canine training program coordinator and unit manager at the prison, visited the Elk County Humane Society, where they picked up numerous supplies for the program including dog crates, food and toys.
The 8-to-12-week program entails utilizing an outsider trainer to teach selected inmates how to properly train their assigned dog on various behaviors, commands and socialization techniques.
At the conclusion of the program the dogs will undergo a test; if they pass, they will receive the K9 Good Citizenship Award. Earning this award is just one of the goals of the program.
"We're really hoping to have "Wags for Warriors," out of Cleveland, come adopt the dogs then and train them up further and they will be assigned to wounded vets, particularly those with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic brain injuries," Overmyer said. "That's our hope for the end result, plus the bottom line is to make the dogs here in Elk County more adoptable."
He added that seven other state correctional institutions participate in a similar dog training program, however this is the first attempt by SCI-Forest and with the Wags for Warriors organization. Other prisons have trained canines as general service dogs for the disabled.
"It's a great opportunity for both the inmates and the dogs and helps them get adopted. I think it's a win-win situation," said Elk County Humane Officer Karen Cappiello, shelter operations manager.
Throughout the duration of the program, five dogs will reside with the inmates inside their cells. In order to be considered for the program, prison personnel have conducted a lengthy process of choosing inmates. Initially inmates were required to submit volunteer slips, then participate in a screening process. Personnel consider the inmates' charges and criminal history, which is eventually reviewed by the prison superintendent.
"A lot of them want involved because they're getting something relatively normal, they're getting a pet. It teaches them a lot of responsibility, because a lot of them have never been responsible for anything but themselves," Haupt explained. "It helps a lot of them grow up, teaches a lot of them empathy because they have to relate to something else. The dogs are going to be totally dependent upon them and a lot of them have never experienced that before."
Many inmates noted on their application they were previous pet owners and missed their animals.
Haupt said the inmates are notified about the program criteria, emphasizing the dogs will not be staying permanently at the prison and they are training the dogs to help someone else and to be that person's pet.
"If they have issues with that, they disqualify themselves from our program," Haupt added.
Inmates are housed two to a cell, with the chosen inmate being the primary handler and their cellmate acting as the secondary handler.
"Once the first program is done we're just going to keep on rolling with another batch," Overmyer said. "During the next cycle the secondary will become primary, so hopefully we'll keep it running for quite awhile."
In addition to training duties the inmates must feed, walk and bathe the dogs, something that may seem difficult in a prison setting.
"Hopefully we can get enough inmates with long enough sentences that stick around who want to participate," Haupt said.
According to Overmyer, even though SCI-Forest is a Level 4 maximum-security prison, the chosen inmates will reside inside a Level 2 housing unit, where they are permitted more privileges and freedom of movement.
"We picked that area because there is a small, grassy area outside of it, where they can let the dogs out at night before it's time to call it a day," Overmyer said.
The program's canine trainer, Sandra Harknett from Pampered Pooches in DuBois, plans to visit the prison on Sundays, when she will instruct the inmate handlers. The handlers are responsible for completing homework involving the ability to complete numerous tasks and behaviors. It is up to the handler as to how often and how long they choose to work with their dogs and to determine what level the dog is capable of learning.
A veterinarian is located a short distance from the prison. Overmyer added that Harknett will be reimbursed for her mileage to the prison.