KINGMAN - School may be out for children everywhere, but not for these pups and their inmate teachers. It's been more than a month since 20 inmates at Arizona State Prison-Kingman received 10 dogs from Mohave Companion Animal Rescue Efforts Network (CARENet) as part of the Friends from the Pen dog-training program.
The dogs are collected from a variety of shelters and local rescue agencies across the county. Many of the dogs are good animals that have a few quirks that need to be worked out through a little training.
Getting into the program is a special privilege for the inmates. Inmates have to submit an application and there's a long waiting list to get in, said Rhonda Gamache, who is in charge of the program at the prison.
Since the dogs arrived at the end of May, the inmates have worked with them nearly 24 hours a day, every day. The dogs sleep and stay with the inmates all day long, except when the inmates leave for meals or to the infirmary.
"We start with simple commands, 'sit, stay, down,' and then progress to harder commands," such as teaching the dogs to heel, walk properly on a leash and come on command, said Roy Hayes of CARENet.
Hayes holds a training class with the inmates at the prison every week for the entire eight weeks of the program. At the end of more than four weeks, the improvement in the dogs' behavior is noticeable. The dogs sit quietly now instead of jumping up and down. They walk at the side of their inmate teachers instead of pulling at the leash or lagging behind. They sit and stay while the inmate walks around them or stands behind them.
The playfulness that was evident on the first day the dogs arrive is still there, but it's tempered now, like a 6-year-old after his first year in school. But like any child, sometimes it's just too hard to sit still. However, now all it takes is a firm command or a tug on the collar to remind them to behave.
Some of the inmates even teach the dogs their own tricks, Hayes said. It's one of the highlights of the graduation and open house ceremonies that mark the end of the training.
"They get a real kick out of showing off some of the special tricks they've taught the dogs," he said.
As the inmates continue to work with the dogs, some of the quirks disappear and the rough edges are smoothed. But those rough spots and quirks can reappear.
Find the trigger
During his weekly training visit on June 24, Hayes told the inmates that sometimes an environment or a specific behavior can effect how a dog reacts.
He told them about a pit bull mix he once had. A sweet, affectionate dog, he said, but one that had a tendency to bite, especially when playing. With firm training, Hayes was able to get the dog not to bite, but he was never able to be very affectionate or playful with it.
He eventually gave the dog to a police officer that had taken a liking to it. He told the officer about the dog's problem and two got along fine for a while. Then one day when the two were playing, the dog bit the officer, Hayes said. The officer was concerned about having a dog that might inadvertently bite the wrong person just because they were playing.
Hayes took the dog back and it stayed with him the rest of its life, but he was never able to be playful with it and had to warn others not to be too playful with it, he said. For that dog, its trigger was play. At any other time the dog was calm. But if it became too comfortable with a person and didn't see that person as the top dog, then it might take a nip.
Each dog is different. Some react to loud noises, others don't like men or women or children, others don't get along with other dogs or animals, some don't like to be petted a certain way, etc, he told the inmates. It can be anything, but once you find the trigger, the trick is to desensitize the dog to it. Some dogs, like his pit bull mix, just can't be desensitized, he said, you just have to avoid the trigger if you want to keep the dog.
Hayes not only teaches at these classes, he also answers numerous questions from the inmates on everything from the feeding and care of the dogs to behavior or medical problems that might have cropped up. Inmates are constantly asking him questions before, during and after the class. Hayes said he tries to answer them all and often brings in some of his own dog training books for the inmates to read.
Besides basic commands, the inmates also try to get the dogs used to being handled, Hayes said. They roll the dogs on their sides and backs and rub their bellies, legs and paws. The idea is to get the dog used to being examined by a vet, he said.
At least once during the eight-week training period, Hayes tries to get a local vet to come into the prison and teach the inmates what to look for and how to react in an emergency or when a dog becomes sick. Hayes has a local vet signed up to visit this week. The Miner has been invited to watch while the inmates learn how to stop a dog from choking, perform CPR and other emergency techniques.
The eight-week training period for the dogs and the inmates is rapidly drawing to a close. The open house, where they show off all their hard work, is slated for July 15.
The graduation ceremony where the dogs are put up for adoption is set for July 29.
Both events are open to the public, but in order to attend you must call the prison at least a week ahead of the date in order to get clearance. You can contact the prison at (928) 565-2460.