While utilizing inmates to help with the challenge of trying to figure out what to do with hard-to-adopt dogs might be new in our area, it’s not a new idea. Several states including Washington State, Kentucky, and Florida have programs. The Florida Department of Corrections has a program called “TAILS” (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills) that pairs what have been deemed “at-risk” dogs with inmates in their system.
For the past 15 months, I’ve sat in on numerous conference calls with my counterparts in the municipalities and townships throughout Cumberland County discussing the ever-rising costs of sending our stray dogs and cats to the regional shelter. Part of those discussions centered on the costs of building a county-owned facility and the costs of operating such a facility.
If county leaders hesitated over the prospect of building a new county jail facility, the idea of building an animal shelter would be an absolute no. But the truth is that we will have inmates and we will have stray animals and dealing with both will be expensive whether or not we try to out-source the issues.
According to news reports, the dogs selected for the Florida program are dogs that would have otherwise been put down. Often these animals are ones that were trained to fight or came out of other traumatic or abusive situations and for those reasons these are the dogs that fail to find adoptive homes.
In Florida’s TAILS program, there is a rigorous screening process. Inmates involved with animal-related crimes—and any type of violent crime—are disqualified from participating. Participation in their program is a reward for good behavior. The dogs in this program are assigned to two inmates, one serving as a trainer and one as a handler. The inmates engage with the dogs for several hours per day, which includes dedicated training times as well as playtime.
If it is true that dogs coming out of abusive and traumatic situations make it difficult for them to fit into a household, it’s equally true that people coming out of abusive and traumatic situations make it difficult for them to function and fit into a community. That’s not meant as a justification but only as a recognition of how things are in this world.
In contrast, I have read various articles and media reports about how beneficial it is for people—especially those who are isolated, living alone, or elderly—to have a pet. The companionship of a pet, especially dogs, has been credited with lowering blood pressure, boosting the immune system, and warding off anxiety and depression.
For the dogs involved, who would likely end up euthanized, having the opportunity to be loved and trained and rehabilitated so that they can transition into a permanent home through adoption is the far better outcome. For those animals who must remain at the shelter, selected inmates would serve as their caregivers.
It is not clear what county officials will ultimately decide to do, but if the decision is to move ahead with building a new facility, why not give some thought to including an animal shelter component to that plan?
There are several programs around the country to help inform anything we do on the local level. For those inmates who want to make positive and productive changes in their lives, serving as animal caregivers will provide them with something positive and healing to focus on. In return, they will receive the unconditional love that makes a dog man’s best friend.