Hope for Shelter Dogs and Their Incarcerated Caregivers

By Victoria Sanderson, August 2019
J.W. (right) and new student. Photo courtesy Patriot Service Dogs.

J.W. (right) and new student. Photo courtesy Patriot Service Dogs.

"Count complete at Charlie Dorm,” the gray-uniformed officer calls into his radio. “Thirty inmates, 14 canines.”

This ritual, individually counting every woman incarcerated at the Lowell Correctional Facility (and every canine in their care), happens five times a day. The dogs of Charlie Dorm know the routine, and patiently wait in their kennels while their inmate trainers sit silently on their bunks.

A voice muffled by radio static replies, “Compound count complete. All clear.”

“All clear,” the guard yells down the hallway.

With the signal given, the dogs stand and stretch while their trainers bounce back into work mode—there’s training to be done, baths to be given, reports that need double-checking. Count time is the only time Charlie Dorm isn’t a hive of activity.

Set in the wide-open pastureland of Florida’s horse country, Charlie Dorm is surrounded by two layers of 50-foot fence topped with razor wire. Lowell is the South’s largest women’s prison, and the dorm is one of its smallest housing units. Originally built to house pregnant inmates and inmates with small children, it’s now home to two related dog-focused programs: Women Offering Obedience and Friendship (W.O.O.F.) and Patriot Service Dogs (PSD).

Most inmates who enter Charlie Dorm begin working with W.O.O.F. In this program, inmates become trainers as they learn to teach shelter dogs basic obedience. Haile’s Angels Pet Rescue in neighboring Gainesville supplies the women of W.O.O.F. with new shelter dogs every eight weeks. Many of the dogs chosen for the program are special cases: older dogs less likely to be adopted, energetic young pups in need of training, sensitive personalities who struggle in a shelter situation.

Over a period of eight weeks, the dogs not only learn to sit and stay, they learn to trust again. W.O.O.F. trainers take time to understand each dog’s personality and offer an understanding heart to those with abandonment or abuse in their past. Over time, the women of W.O.O.F. have become experts at long-shot cases.

If a trainer has a longer sentence at Lowell and shows a special knack for dogs, she might be asked to take on the daunting task of puppyraising a service dog for PSD. A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, PSD provides wounded veterans with service dogs at no cost. For the past eight years, their dogs have been primarily trained by the women in Charlie Dorm.

Brought to Lowell at eight weeks old, PSD service dogs begin training early; most know the basic commands by the time they’re six months. Before they graduate as two-year-olds, they learn more complex skills, such as turning a light switch on and off, removing a shoe and opening drawers.

More than 30 veterans have been matched with a service dog trained in Charlie Dorm. While everyone involved in Patriot Service Dogs and the W.O.O.F. program is proud of the work they do for dogs, they also know that the dogs are one part of a larger mission.

Many of the women in Charlie Dorm suffer from addiction and carry heavy baggage from their pasts. Without new skills and a new outlook on life, they are at high risk of returning to prison. The program provides them with job skills, and many have gone on to become dog trainers, groomers and vet techs.

The program also encourages the women to build confidence through public speaking assignments, including teaching other inmates. To provide the women with education in other areas, it invites speakers, who address topics ranging from poetry to personal finance. Days are spent completing team-building exercises and empathy workshops so that the women learn to build each other up rather than tear each other down.

At Charlie Dorm, everyone—on two feet and on four—has a past. The W.O.O.F. and PSD programs’ ultimate goal is to make sure each one leaves with a future.