Sharon Cooper, a Houston woman serving 30 years in prison for embezzlement, wasn't quite sure what she was getting into when she signed up to train dogs with Patriot Paws. Maybe it was all about sitting up, rolling over and doing cute puppy tricks.Former TDCJ board chair Christina Crain deserves credit for bringing the program to TDCJ:
She quickly learned, though, that it was about much more: changing lives — her own and others'.
Cooper, 49, is one of 13 female inmates at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Crain Unit devoting their full time to training dogs to aid disabled military veterans. Ten more at the nearby Murray Unit also work in the program.
"I was in awe when I saw what these dogs did," Cooper said, adding that the training experience has given direction to her own life. "I never really had a passion in life. This could be my passion. This could be my career."
Many might be surprised at what Patriot Paws dogs, most of whom pretty much appear to be run-of-the-mill Rovers, can do.
These dogs — Barney, Parole, Memphis and the rest — are super-valets who can drop your dirty socks in the washer, fetch cold drinks from the fridge, bring your medicine or your trousers, open doors, gallop for help in emergencies and keep you steady on your feet and in your mind.
To the those who rely on them, they're best buddies, canine soulmates. To women such as Cooper, they're a heart-lifting chance to give back to society.
[Lori] Stevens, 52, who has trained dogs for more than two decades, launched Patriot Paws in an effort to help Dallas-area disabled vets. The program expanded to the Gatesville prison units through the interest of former TDCJ Chairwoman Christina Crain, a Dallas lawyer for whom the prison was named. Crain, Stevens said, was familiar with similar programs outside Texas.I notice that in both the adult and youth systems these dog training programs are operated and presumably funded as nonprofits. But I'm willing to bet - and it's certainly worth gathering data and testing - that the experience of successfully participating in such programs has more therapeutic and/or rehabilitative value than many of the treatment and counseling programs TDCJ offenders go through now.
At first, Stevens was nervous.
"I didn't know what to expect," she said. "You get goose bumps just walking in the gate. ...The first time we came down, we spent two weeks training the trainers. They were just a bunch of people who had made stupid mistakes. I met some amazing women. They're just like sponges soaking up knowledge."
Stevens said positive reinforcement is used to train the dogs to respond to voice and visual commands.
Once the dogs master dozens of basic skills, they are "customized" to care for their new owners. Ninety percent of the veterans who receive dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; some are amputees, others victims of head trauma.
"The dogs can open and close doors; get help in emergencies; pick up dropped items," Stevens said. "They do the laundry. They retrieve phones and medicine. They push emergency light switches. Now we have dogs who pull down zippers and pull off shoes and socks."
Patriot Paws, largely supported through donations, provides the dogs free. Close to 70 percent go to veterans.
There doesn't seem to be much research I could locate on recidivism rates or related outcomes for offenders who participate in these programs, though they've been implemented here and there around the country. A search on the Social Science Research Network on the keywords "prison, training, dog" revealed nothing. Via Google Scholar I found a study showing the programs reduce depression and boost self-esteem among women inmate trainers, but didn't focus on recidivism. Most research on the topic, like this 2007 Master's thesis focused on a program in Ohio (pdf), is more descriptive than analytical. An article from 2006 said the field of criminology "has failed to systematically study the phenomenon."
Relatedly, last night on PBS there was a documentary titled "Through a Dog's Eyes" that told the story of end-users of service dogs like those being trained in the Patriot Paws program. Clearly the demand for such animals is greater than the supply. If the programs could be shown to reduce recidivism and/or improve inmate behavior, perhaps it'd be worth the state paying to scale up operations - in the case of juveniles perhaps financing it by jettisoning things that don't work, like TYC's failed drug treatment program.
Trying innovative strategies is great, but I'd prefer that when corrections officials do so that there's an evaluation component so it's possible to determine whether the program is working as intended (or at all). I consider the missing evaluation component a major shortcoming of Texas' 2007 probation reforms, so that criticism isn't specific to dog training. But in this case there are so many positive anecdotal accolades for such programs it'd be nice to get some evidence-driven analysis of what happens with inmates who participate after they leave custody. If the results are positive, who knows? Maybe a generation from now instead of being renowned for making license plates and furniture, prisons could become known as first-rate dog-training academies for people with special needs. That'd certainly change the culture of the institutions.