Program gives Ark. dogs, prisoners a second chance
TUCKER — Arkansas has a number of dogs behind bars, but they're not in the pound.
They're part of a program called Paws in Prison that pairs pooches with prisoners for obedience training.
The program works with animal shelters and rescue groups across the state to set up training for the dogs, including some that were at risk of being euthanized. Convicts in six state prisons then teach the dogs to sit, stay and sometimes dramatically play dead — all before the pets are adopted by people across the country.
"The dogs in this program were essentially on doggie death row before they came to the prison system," Arkansas Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said. "So this program has really provided a second chance. And the program is about second chances and redemption for not only the dogs, but for the inmates as well."
Prisoner James C. Dulaney agrees.
"I believe in a such thing called redemption — for animals and people," said Dulaney, who's serving a life sentence on a capital murder conviction. "If you can't give life, why take it? If these dogs can be saved, I'm all for it."
Dulaney and other inmates involved in the Paws in Prison program say it's easy to get attached to the dogs they train.
"You know you're not supposed to really get to liking the dog cause you already know they're going to leave, but it's hard not to love them," said prisoner Steven Miller, another program participant.
Miller, who's also serving a life term for capital murder, recently watched as Scott Heer came by to pick up Sansa, the dog he and his wife were adopting.
"We knew that we were going to get a dog that ... had been trained, loved in about an 8-week period of time," Heer said. "So, it was just a good way for us to adopt."
More than 200 dogs have gone through the program since it began in December 2011, Wilson said. Dog training typically lasts eight to 10 weeks, though specialized training for service dogs can last longer. Most of the funding comes from donations, Wilson said.
The dogs in the program range from Labrador retrievers to boxer and terrier mixes. Meanwhile, the prisoners range from those serving life sentences without the chance for parole to ones with much shorter stints.
Paws in Prison inmates must have good disciplinary records and cannot have any animal cruelty-related charges, Wilson said.
"The inmates have to earn the right to be in this program," said Last Chance Arkansas executive director Carrie Kessler, who works with the dogs and their inmate trainers. "It's a program that encourages and rewards their good behavior."