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Q&A with the Inmate Trainers of Freedom Tails
Prison inmates train dogs behind bars.
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Freedom Tails Graduation

Freedom Tails is a joint program with the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Wash., and the animal rescue group North Beach PAWS. It partners rescued dogs with SCCC inmates who train and care for the dogs to prepare them for life in their adoptive homes. We feature Freedom Tails in the April/May 2011 issue of The Bark, along with two leather collars made by the SCCC K9 Club to support Freedom Tails (see “Kit’s Corner”).

We spoke with SCCC Corrections Unit Supervisor Dennis Cherry, who heads up the program on the corrections end, as well as Program Assistant Karen Diehm, who writes the program’s monthly newsletters, and Carl Corcoran and Robert Wrinkle, two of the inmate trainers. They explain how the program got started and how it has dramatically changed life inside the prison.

Bark: What made you specifically want to try a dog program at SCCC?

Cherry: We heard how successful it was for bringing violence down in the units and how it was helping the offenders cope with being in prison and helping them when they get out. It gives them a self worth, like they’re helping the community. And it helps them to progress in their lives once they get out. It gives them some responsibility while they’re in here. They have to take care of a dog and they’re totally responsible for it. And it seems to be working pretty well.

Bark: Trainer Corcoran, what made you decide to participate in the program?

Corcoran: It gives me something to look forward to every day. I have something to care for, and it gives me a self-worth. I feel like I’m doing something good for the community and a dog.

Bark: The dogs you’ve been training, are they dogs that have been surrendered and have been in shelters?

Corcoran: My first dog that I had was a Terrier. Her name was Cookie. I came in just a couple weeks prior to her graduating, and that was the dog that I learned on. Maverick was the first dog that I trained on my own. He was a black Lab. He was an owner surrender. The owner didn’t have time for him, so they just gave him up. Now I have Skeeter.

Diehm: Skeeter’s a special project this time around. His owner has a disability, so we’re training him to help her when he gets back home.

Corcoran: Right now I’m training him to ring a bell. I have started training him to bring me a bag, which is going to have medicine in it. He’s picked that up real well. And he wears a special harness. It’s kind of like he’ll be used for a cane, or if she falls down, she can use him to get back up.

Wrinkle: I trained the first [assistance] dog. We trained her last session, and she was trained for a 17-year-old who has Down syndrome, and she was the first special needs dog we did. That was kind of difficult, because we had to train her to be very gentle with her mouth, no jumping. Everything that a person with Down syndrome needs. And we teach ourselves in some sense on how to train dogs in that way.

Bark: Do you feel like doing this has prepared you for leaving the correctional system?

Wrinkle:
It’s helped me. You see, when we first started this, I was kind of a wreck. Not really that much of a sense of responsibility, although I’d been through some college. And it’s like having a two-year-old kid on your shoulder all the time, so you’ve really got to pay attention. You’ve got to feed him, exercise him. You’ve got to bathe him. Everything in your daily life, you have to do with a two-year-old kid more or less. As far as responsibility, I mean we’ve got to give the dog meds, everything to do with this dog we live with him day in and day out for the next eight to 12 weeks. So it’s taught me more responsibility in the 14 or 15 months that I’ve been in the dog program than I’ve learned since I’ve been down. Plus, it’s also taught me that people do care. We get to interact with the community in this program in ways that we never have before.

Bark: When you say “interact with the community,” do you mean specifically with the outside trainers?

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