Inmates at Idaho prisons teach unwanted dogs new tricks

Started by tramoore, March 11, 2008, 01:17:35 PM

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Living with a dog can change your life - especially if you live in prison.

Just ask Dusty Hunt, 27, of Buhl. Hunt is training his sixth dog for the Idaho Humane Society at the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise.

A tall, sinewy man, Hunt cuts a formidable silhouette. The back of his shaved head sports the tattoo "8 seconds." That's how long a rodeo rider has to stay on a bull. On his right arm the words "Cowboy up" are inked.

"I'm definitely a cowboy," he said. Hunt's a shy guy who chooses his words with great care. The dogs have drawn him out, given him a reason to talk to other people.

One day, he said, he realized he was doing things he wouldn't normally have done.

"Before, I wouldn't talk to anybody or even want to be around other races," he said. "Now, I don't have a problem. I realized there's more to people than skin color. In prison, that's a lot."

The dogs have given him a gift no human could - patience.

"I tell the dog to sit, and he gets up, and I make him sit - over and over and over again," Hunt said.

"When something comes up with an inmate, instead of fighting, now I can say 'Why don't we talk about it?' "


The Inmate Dog Alliance Project of Idaho will celebrate four years at ICC, a privately run minimum security prison, this summer. It is the oldest prison dog program in the state.

But it has worked so well a similar program was initiated at the Maximum Security Prison last fall.

At ICC, 80 inmates live on B Pod - 24 of whom are dog trainers - with 12 dogs.

The men work in pairs to train the dogs - one as the main handler, who usually has more experience, and the other as backup.

The dogs are free to roam around the pod off their leashes. It is the cleanest, quietest pod in the prison, according to ICC spokesman Michael Trant.

"It used to be a normal, noisy pod, until the dogs came," he said. "If we were standing in another pod, we wouldn't be able to hear ourselves talk."


Don Gurley, a 39-year-old Boisean, has been with the project at ICC since the beginning. He's training his 16th dog and has the calm demeanor of someone who has seen it all.

"We've got 12 different personalities of dogs. They're coming here for behavior problems, just like us," he said. "They come out better dogs, and we're better people."

Having a dog can sometimes be depressing, he said, because it reminds him of what he has lost. But it has helped him see people differently, too.

"It's made me a better person," he said. "I used to look at people's crimes, and I don't anymore."

Brian McCalmant, 47, of Bonners Ferry has been training dogs at ICC for three years.

The nails of his dog, Vito, rap like typewriter keys as the two cross the linoleum tiles, which offer little traction for dogs.

Vito, a basset hound mix, is his 14th dog.

Before McCalmant could be considered for the project, he had to meet the requirements, which meant he had to get his GED.

He completed the course in less than three months, graduating class valedictorian. If it hadn't been a requirement of the project, he said, he never would have done it.

When he started training dogs, McCalmant said he was taking antidepressants and anxiety medication. Three months into the dog project, he took himself off medication.

"I haven't had any problems since," he said.

McCalmant speaks glowingly of one dog he trained that was adopted by a nurse and became a therapy dog.

"This gives us a chance to give back," he said.

That's a common sentiment among the inmates.

Matthew Wells, 30, of Seattle has been with the project for two years and has trained about a dozen dogs.

"The experience of training a dog is bar none," he said. "Seeing a dog go from not knowing anything to learning a lot of tricks - it's like your own artwork."


The dogs end up in prison because no one wants them.

"We pick dogs that have been in the shelter for a while, have bad manners or no manners, the plain black dogs," said Dee Fugit of the Idaho Humane Society.

To get out of prison, the dogs have to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test, and it is up to the men in the project to see that they do it.

At ICC, the program takes eight weeks.

Because the program at max is so new, it is taking the trainers there a bit longer to get their dogs up to speed. Still, the first four dogs out of the project there were adopted the same day, Fugit said.

John McLaughlin, a trainer for the Humane Society, makes the rounds of both prisons once a week to check on the project.

He watches how the men and dogs work together and modifies training when necessary. He likes the dogs to learn at least five tricks so the men and dogs can bond and have some fun.

"They can't believe how fast these dogs learn," he said. "And we bring in some rowdy beasts."

McLaughlin also teaches the men to use positive reinforcement and to reward the dogs for good behavior.

"A lot of guys say, 'Nobody ever told me, "Good boy," ' " he said.

The Humane Society, through grants and donations, supplies all the needs of the dogs. Choke chains are not allowed in prison, and all the metal has been removed from the dog crates and replaced with other materials.

The adoption rate for prison graduates is 100 percent, Fugit said. "I have a list of 15 people who want one of ICC's dogs."

The project is so successful that McLaughlin wants to see it expanded.

"I would like to see a program like this for juveniles," he said. "Get them before they're in for 30 years."


On a bitter January morning, with the temperature nipping at 12 degrees, McLaughlin put seven trainers and seven dogs through their paces in the Maximum Security Prison yard, while the other seven trainers watched.

Prison officials chose the 14 volunteers because they have no history of animal cruelty, and, of course, they like dogs.

The trainers were lined up against the wall of the next pod; the dogs tried to sit and stay. To the uninitiated, it looked like nothing extraordinary was taking place.

"In that line up right there, I can see four people who had nothing to do with each other," said David Gregory, 44, of Nampa. "They're standing next to each other without mad-dogging each other. It's broken down a lot of barriers."

Gregory has been with the project since it started at max last September and is training his second dog.

His first dog, Bingo, had been badly abused and was difficult to train, he said.

Gregory did such a good job with him that he was rewarded with a new challenge - a very aggressive dog, Jesse, who since his arrival has settled into the program well.

One of Gregory's friends has already filed the paperwork to adopt Jesse.

"He lifts my spirits," Gregory said. "It's a small way to give back to a community that I took so much from."

I actually think this is a good program.

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