In a prison yard in Chowchilla, surrounded by layers of brick, chain link, razor wire and armed guards, 10 men and five dogs are working to change for the better.
These inmates are the first batch of recruits to a program at Valley State Prison aimed at training dogs from Madera County animal shelter to make them more adoptable.
Bee photographer Craig Kohlruss and I get another glimpse at progress made by Rosie, a Jack Russell terrier mix, last week after she weaves through a scattering of orange cones in a dirt yard with inmate Jered Pillsbury.
Kneeling beside the tiny white and brown dog, the 35-year-old cheerfully gives a string of commands that Rosie follows easily.
“High 10,” he says as Rosie springs up on her back legs to give Pillsbury two high-fives. “Rosie, come. Rosie, spin. That was lazy, spin. Shake. Other one, other one. Down. Rollover. Rosie, rollover. Sit. Down. Rollover. There’s a good girl, mama.”
Rosie can kiss, too, he says.
Pillsbury’s dog training partner, inmate Leobardo Campos Jr., can’t help but emphasize this grand finale.
“Oh, yeah, she can kiss!” Campos adds.
Pillsbury lowers his face toward Rosie’s – “get it, get” – and she obliges.
Inmates are instructed by volunteer dog trainer and registered veterinary technician Ali Imel of Yosemite Bark Pet Services, who runs two-hour training sessions three times a week.
She was hesitant at first about going into the men’s prison, but her concerns subsided quickly.
“These guys have been really appreciative of my service and have been really thoughtful and so kind and compassionate with these dogs,” Imel says.
All training is done with positive reinforcement. Shock collars, leash pulling and hitting animals to teach them a lesson? No way. Not with Imel.
She describes her method of training this way: “We strongly feel that telling our dogs what they can’t do through force, pain or intimidation does not teach them what they can do.”
The inmates just finished their 10th and final week of training the first batch of dogs. All but one of the four-leggeds earned a Canine Good Citizen certificate Saturday from the American Kennel Club after passing a basic dog obedience test. The dog that didn’t pass was nearly successful, completing nine of 10 challenges.
Several prison officers have filled out paperwork to adopt some of the dogs. Any that aren’t adopted will be returned to the animal shelter, and their cages will be marked with the special training designation.
The certification gives them an advantage over other dogs. Madera County euthanizes about 1,000 dogs every year, says Kirsten Gross, director of Madera County Animal Services and a board member for Friends of Madera Animal Shelter, a nonprofit providing all the dog food, bedding and supplies for Valley State Prison’s Very Special Puppies program.
“I think there are a lot of parallels between the animals that go into the shelter and the people in prison, and I think together they are helping each other,” Gross says. “It’s phenomenal. Whoever came up with this idea, it’s great.”
Power of love
Lt. Tony Martinez and Officer Steve Gill have been pushing for a dog training program at Valley State Prison for seven years. In December, the prison got a new warden, Ray Fisher Jr., and they tried again.
“Not only did he say yes, he said to hurry up and make it happen, which really threw us off guard because we got so used to people saying no,” Martinez says.
They got the idea from some female inmates when Valley State Prison was a women’s facility, along with television shows about dog training programs at other prisons. Martinez says six California prisons have dog training programs. They hope inmates at Valley State Prison will eventually be able to train dogs to be service dogs that help people with disabilities. The dogs chosen so far have been even-tempered as inmates learn to become trainers.
In a couple of weeks, a new batch of dogs will be brought into the prison to be trained by the same 10 inmates who were chosen from more than 200 applicants. To qualify for the program, inmates must have at least two years remaining on their prison sentence, be disciplinary-free for two years, be able to lift 40 pounds and have no convictions for crimes against women, children or animals.
It had been years since participant George Carter had seen a dog. He trained Nikko, a Boston terrier-pug mix.
“I kind of lost it a little bit,” the 44-year-old says of meeting Nikko. “I got a little emotional when I first started interacting with him because he’s precious, you know? A cool little animal that loves ya unconditionally? We don’t get that in here.”
The dogs live with the inmates during their stay. Each dog has two inmate trainers who take turns caring for the animal.
“It’s really amazing,” Pillsbury says of the program. “It gives us a chance to learn how to care for something other than ourselves, and I think that’s one of the biggest things. It teaches us to be responsible for another life, other than our own, and I think that’s a really good skill that we can take from here and take home with us.”
Pillsbury says he used to be selfish, only thinking of himself, and the dog training program is changing that.
“There are more important things in life – like taking care of Rosie,” he says. “She gives a lot of unconditional love. The program to me is really important to my rehabilitation in the prison process and it’s really unbelievable that these guys are providing us with this chance.”
Rony Khneiser, 34, says something similar of caring for Duckie with fellow inmate Anthony Hargrew, 48.
“Instead of all the years of taking from society, I feel like now I’m able to give back a little something with this dog program,” Khneiser says. “It’s a little different than just doing your time and getting out and restarting.”
Hargrew says Duckie is also teaching him about “humility and empathy.”
“We relate some of the training to ourselves, like reinforcement,” Hargrew says. “We have to reinforce each other. When we are having bad days, we reinforce each other with a positive response, sharing and spending time with each other.”
The dogs also are helping inmates who aren’t in the program. Hargrew is no longer met with blank stares on trips to the prison store.
“When I take Duckie through a crowd, everybody starts sharing, ‘Oh, I have a dog!’ And it’s a trip where you have inmates and all of a sudden they have these high voices, ‘Duckieee!’ ” he says with a laugh. “So it’s really therapeutic, not just for me.”
James Weems, 53, says the program “got us back to being human.” He’s worked to spot “outward manifestations of the inward problems” affecting his lab-pitbull mix, Vitalia. He’s noticed how she flinches when he moves his hand.
“I really bonded with her and I showed her that, you know what, no one is going to hurt you again. You are going to be loved.”
Driving back to the office from the prison, I soak in green fields along the side of the highway and this idea of a new horizon – opportunities.
Everything gets replayed – the eagerness in the men’s voices, a sincerity and sweetness not unlike a child seeking approval. The way they bowed their heads when they talked about who they used to be, what they’d done. The fragile hope that flickered across some of their words, never more evident than when they talked about the dogs.
I see Carter telling me he loves dolphins, and Campos talking about volunteering with self-help groups for struggling inmates.
I think about learning that inmates from the prison are donating more than $4,000 to the Craycroft Cancer Center at Valley Children’s Hospital.
I see Pillsbury kneeling proudly beside Rosie.
“Not only can shelter dogs be rehabilitated for society, so can we,” he says. “It just takes a few people to believe in us, that’s all it takes.”
And I think of all of them standing in that dirt lot like they’ve done for weeks, months, years.
They’ll remain that way, some for the rest of their lives.
Campos is among some of the “lifers.” He says being selected for the dog training program is a dream come true.
“It gives us hope,” he says. “Hope of training a dog, teaching a dog, giving a dog a new home. Saving their lives. … It’s like a freedom almost. Yeah, it’s a great freedom.”
I think of all of these things while remembering a yard full of unwanted men and dogs.