PAWS – Inside The Nation’s Only Juvenile Prison Service Dog Training Program
Youth and Shelter Dogs Team Up To Rise Above Troubled Pasts and Help Others
In Nation’s Only Juvenile Prison
Service Dog Training Program
(Editor’s note: The names of the youth have been changed to protect their confidentiality. They have signed releases to use photos and videos that they are in.)
Youth incarcerated at the Ron Jackson facility in Brownwood, Texas, got a rare and well-earned opportunity for a field trip to reunite with service dogs they had trained when the dogs first emerged from their own humble beginnings at Texas animal shelters.
On January 11, 2017, four boys in the program, along with staff from Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), traveled three and a half hours to Dripping Springs, Texas to visit the campus of Service Dogs, Inc. The boys and other TJJD youth have been working with trainers from Service Dogs, Inc. for over a year in the nation’s first and only juvenile offender service dog training program.
“Youth in the PAWS program (Pairing Achievement With Service) have been living with and training shelter dogs for pet adoption since 2010,” explains PAWS administrator and dog trainer for TJJD Cris Burton, M.Ed. “Youth must pass a psychological screening and have enough time left to work with the dogs through the 9-12 week training program.”
Burton discovered Service Dogs, Inc. when he attended a week long workshop at their Academy for Professional Dog Trainers. After the workshop, he approached Service Dogs, Inc. about a partnership.
For over a year, trainers from Service Dogs, Inc. have traveled to the prison once a month and held bi-weekly conference calls with the youth to monitor the dogs’ progress. “They are operating at a very sophisticated level of training,” says Al Kordowski, Director of Training at Service Dogs, Inc.
At Service Dogs, Inc. training center, the boys met the disabled clients, both injured veterans, who were receiving two of the Service Dogs they had helped train. They also hopped into wheelchairs and took the dogs through Service Dogs, Inc’s canine behavior obstacle course, a task usually not undertaken by professional dog trainers or SDI clients until the third day of a week’s worth of training. Even more significantly, this was the first time, the youth had worked dogs from a wheelchair.
“Their skill level was superior to many professional trainers who apply for jobs here,” said Sheri Soltes, Founder and President of Service Dogs, Inc. “We have been interviewing candidates for an associate trainer position. After seeing him in action, we would love to hire Brandon, who is about to complete his sentence.”
The program has proven to be a win-win for the youth, the dogs, the organizations involved and even the community.
“This program helps the youth develop a better sense of empathy,” says Troy Lowery, Corrections Officer VI who supervises all of the Corrections Officers in the dorm where the youth live. “The canines help them connect to their unmet needs and their risk factors. The kids must be able to identify their unmet needs, such as feeling acceptance and belonging. They put their dog in their spot – the dog has unmet needs, maybe it’s been hurt – and it helps the youth understand.”
The youth follow a strict schedule of waking up at 5:00 am, taking the dogs out to toilet, bonding with them, then breakfast, school and other activities and lights out at 9:00 pm.
“I’ve gotten used to the structure,” says Brandon, who has been in the program for over a year and who will complete his sentence in twelve days. “I’ve learned it’s going to be that way anywhere I go. This is going to help me in the long run. Plus, I get to do things I’ve never done before like visit here and go to Barktoberfest,.” (Editor’s note: A rescue dog event in Austin.)
Xavier has been in the PAWS program for almost a year. He says the program has taught him how to face his problems and overcome them by starting a conversation.
“With dogs, it’s not about only enforcing the dog’s behavior,” he says. “You learn to decrease the dog’s risk factors. Those are things like criminal thinking. Like the dog seeing a squirrel and thinking, ‘I’m fixing to go after that squirrel.’ When you use positive reinforcement to teach them, their skills go up and their risk factors go down.”
“I’ve learned how to express my feelings in a positive way,” he says. “It’s not always about looking for a fight or picking up a gun to express your feelings. You learn how to forgive so you’re not stuck in a dark place. If you don’t, you’re always going to have that criminal mentality. Life is not about taking someone’s life.”
“It’s been really good for me,” says Nicolas, who has been in the program for a year and four months. “I like it because we use positive reinforcement. You can’t be mean to the dogs. You learn patience and empathy, putting yourself in the dogs’ shoes so you can understand their feelings. If the dog is having trouble, you give them a break so they can deal with their frustration, then you come back to it.”
The Ron Jackson facility can house and train twenty dogs, doubling Service Dogs, Inc’s capacity to train dogs for deaf and mobility challenged clients, thus significantly shortening the waiting list for a dog. TJJD and Service Dogs, Inc. are expanding the program to two additional facilities in Gainesville and Giddings, Texas this year.
Doug Fullerton received Anakin, a black Labrador retriever who was one of the first service dogs trained by the youth. A naval officer, Olympic trial athlete in multiple sports, MBA graduate of Duke University and father of two, Doug suffers from debilitating seizures that occur approximately every six weeks.
“I thought I had lost nearly everything that defined me. I was a significant athlete – gone. I was a young, significant career businessman – gone. Finally, I was a husband and father – nearly gone. I will never swim competitively again, compete in an area 10k running race hoping for a medal, turn a double-play on a hard-hit grounder, nor take another company public. My hands don’t have the dexterity or control to play Billy Joel songs on the piano anymore, I don’t have the endurance to hike to Machu Picchu with my wife (she went in August by herself), nor does my health allow me to go back onto the Board of any company,” wrote Doug in a letter to the PAWS administration after meeting them and the boys at Service Dogs, Inc’s training center. However, I can now struggle through the episodes, I have the opportunity to positively engage in my sons’ lives (both in and out of school), I have the chance to be a better husband – both by providing my wife with more independence and by contributing more to the household (from chauffeur service to taking Heather out to dinner), and I can return to my men’s group Bible Study through the church.
A great deal of the PAWS effort is never seen by those that have sacrificed in service to others, but please make no mistake, your program is highly valued, discussed, and significantly changing lives for the better … specifically, me, in this case. Additionally, you have allowed my children to have significant activities in their lives that had previously been curtailed. Anakin’s presence, thanks to you and your program, has a very significant ripple effect that is hard to track, yet has an impact upon lives far-ranging in this country and potentially even the world.”
What is PAWS?
Pairing Achievement With Service
PAWS is a program at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facility in Brownwood, Texas. This program pairs screened and selected youth with canine partners in a skills development program aimed at character building through a structured program.
Participants have complete responsibility for the dogs they train. They must learn training skills, follow a planned training path, display patience, and focus on positive reinforcement with the dogs. In return, they have the constant companionship of the dog.
PAWS youth begin basic obedience training with rescued dogs. Once trained, the dogs will enter the SDI training program or be adopted to pet homes.
Beginning basic obedience through PAWS allows trainers at SDI to focus one the complex Hearing and Service Dog skill training.
Working together we hope to rescue more dogs, help PAWS youth learn responsibility and gain skills, and speed training at SDI.
It’s still another way to have even more dogs help more people.
Learn more about PAWS here.