WDOC canine training program

CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Department of Corrections (WDOC) implemented the first canine training program (CTP) at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution (WMCI) in 2014. Since 2014, the program has been able to expand the CTP to four of WDOC’s five facilities run inmate led CTP programs. Each facility partners with different programs.

Three facilities within the WDOC to include the Wyoming State Penitentiary (WSP), the Wyoming Honor Farm (WHF), and Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp (WHCC) all operate programs geared towards the training of canines in hopes to allow these dogs a chance at a new life (i.e., adoption). The Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution (WMCI) expanded its CTP in May 2022 by partnering with International Hearing Dog, Inc. (IHDI). WMCI is the only facility at this time that has two CTP programs assisting the needs of the community (adoption and service oriented).

For those who are incarcerated, opportunities to change and make a positive impact on the world are rare. A CTP in a prison environment is an invaluable opportunity and tool that aids in the rehabilitation and transformation of both individuals and the dogs in their care. It is also a unique way for the incarcerated to give something back to the community, as most dogs that go through this program will have an increased chance of being welcomed into a new home and thriving there.

WMCI PACK and PAWS’abilities Initially, the CTP at WMCI collaborated with the local animal shelter to bring in rescue dogs for basic obedience training. It began without a curriculum or a professional trainer who could give the dog handlers guidance on how to work with dogs, so the handlers read every book they could get their hands on to learn about training. There were some small successes, but it wasn’t until 2015 when the program implemented a curriculum that would teach the inmate handlers many of the skills, they would need to become actual trainers. An experienced canine behaviorist who worked at WMCI, was assigned to the program. The CTP began collaborating with a different rescue programs, rotating in new dogs every nine weeks for training. This was when the CTP implemented a new name, PACK (Preparing Adoptable Companion K-9’s) Program. These additions helped the program evolve with small successes rapidly become more large scale. The rotation of dogs gave the handlers needed experience working with a variety of behavioral issues and bad manners.

The inmates are required to teach their assigned canine basic obedience skills and pass a graduation test that displays what the dog has learned. The graduation test requires a: sit, down, stay, recall, place, finish, walking nicely with a loose lead, and a basic examination of the paws, eyes, and ears. The dogs must also show manner improvement and will have many social opportunities with people and dogs to improve their socialization. The expansion and growth of this program continue and in 2022, WMCI began partnering with IHDI to expand the CTP include service dogs for the hearing impaired. Three puppies were matched with experienced inmate handlers to begin a training program that would last for one year. This partnership brought into being the PAWS’abilities (Preparing Animals With Service Abilities) program. This was a learning process for both handlers and puppies as it was a brand new experience for all of them. The puppies began with socialization, potty training, and learning all about the world. As they got older, they learned basic cues such as sit, down, and stay. Finally, they learned the advanced skills of alerting to sounds that is the main service they will be providing. The inmates were experienced at working with rescue dogs—teaching basic obedience, improving manners, and rehabilitating behavioral issues. Working with puppies and learning all about service training was brand new to them. The trainers at IHDI made regular visits to work with the inmate handlers and educate them on the new training skills they would need to get the puppies ready. The handlers absorbed this knowledge and used it to guide the puppies into service. All three puppies graduated the program and were matched with a person where they will be a helper and companion. WMCI and IHDI have continued the partnership and two more puppies are in the middle of their yearlong training with the inmate handlers. This partnership benefits the inmates’ rehabilitation by giving them responsibility, teaching them skills for their everyday life, and opens an opportunity for them to give back to the community. At WMCI alone, the numbers show the success of both the PACK and PAWS’abilities programs. Forty-two inmates have graduated from the program and have successfully trained at least three dogs (the minimum requirement to graduate the program). Four hundred and eighty-three dogs have also graduated from the program (both service and rescue dogs). The program has had many successes, but also some challenges. Recently, the need to send Wyoming inmates to other facilities, like the facility in Mississippi, has diminished the program. Seven inmate handlers and two puppy sitters were transferred which effectively cut the program in half. Adding new handlers to replace those that were lost will take time. Even in a diminished capacity, the program continues to impact the lives of every handler in the program while they work their hardest to help every dog they work with to be the best dog possible. WHCC CTP Program The CTP at WHCC utilize dogs that are provided by the Weston County Humane Society. These dogs are screened for appropriate placement with an inmate handler and the CTP itself. At this time, WHCC has ten dogs that are working within the program. Each dog has a primary and a secondary handler. WHCC has five ‘babysitters’ to assist in any other care and supervision of the dogs within the program. The dogs live with the primary handlers at night. The handlers train and certify the dogs in the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, which is basic obedience training. CGC allows the dogs to learn the necessary skills and manors to get them ready to be adopted out by the Weston County Humane Society. Classes are held every Saturday morning for an hour. When a dog is believed to be ready and learned the knowledge needed, they are tested on all parts of the CGC program and can earn a certificate.

All handlers must maintain positive work and programming comments in order to stay in the program. If they receive a disciplinary, they are automatically removed, and cannot reapply again for a year. All new applications are screened and interviewed to make sure they are a good fit for the program. Any type of dog abuse is not tolerated, and the handler is removed immediately.

WHF Paws for Life Program

WHCC currently works with Paws for Life. WHCC obtains canines for the CTP through Paws for Life who are believed to be potential candidates for the canine obedience training program.

WHF typically receives four dogs at a time. Upon arrival, inmate handlers within the program and staff immediately examine the dogs and bathe them. Next, the dogs are led to a relief pen. Handlers then take the dogs to their rooms where the dogs will get to know where they will eat and sleep. The CTP typically is an eight-week program.

The dogs get a bandana to wear so other inmates and staff knows the dog is in training. Training begins the day of arrival. Handlers at WHCC use seven common commands for our obedience training which include come, sit, down, stay, heel, no, and off.

Every handler is required to keep a daily journal of training and notes. The daily notes consist of the dogs likes, dislikes, amount of food/water given and time, and their elimination times. The dogs/handlers are tested three separate times in the eight-week time the dogs are in the program. The dogs must score 160 or above to graduate the program and be ready for adoption. After the eight weeks if the dog passes the testing and certification process, they will be given a certificate of graduation and put up for adoption.

WSP Canine Training Program

WSP launched its CTP in January 2023. WSP’s program works with the Rawlins-Rochelle Animal Shelter. The program is set to have six inmate handlers and three dogs. The program that the inmate handlers will be using with the dogs is developed by the American Kennel Club and is expected to last 12 weeks.