On June 4, the Joint Regional Correctional Facility gained two new furry additions to the facility, but their incarceration is short-term.
Eight-month-old labradoodle Jericho and 8-month-old yellow Labrador retriever Vizer are part of a 90-day trial run for the new JRCF Dog Handler CARES Program, which will allow inmates to train puppies in basic obedience skills before the dogs go on to more specialized training to become service dogs.
“The overall purpose of the program is to expand opportunities for inmates to earn education credits, potentially Department of Labor apprenticeships, while supporting a good cause,” said Lt. Col. Rob Rodock, commander of the 705th Military Police Battalion (Detention) and JRCF. “Every inmate in here knows when their end date is. Every one of them is walking out of here at some point. (The program) gives them a skill they can transition upon becoming a civilian again.”
Jericho and Vizer were sent to the JRCF by Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services Inc., a non-profit organization based in Concordia, Kan., that trains canines to serve as assistance dogs for adults and children with disabilities.
Every dog begins with the CARES basic training program, which teaches the dogs 40 basic commands such as “sit,” “stand” and “heel.” This is the training the inmates will provide to the puppies.
“Most of it is just basic movement controls, so you’re able to have the dog get from point A to point B and able to move the way you want,” said program NCOIC Sgt. Christopher Samson, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, JRCF. “Then there are a few others that are recreational.”
Rodock said it is like being in the Army.
“We do basic training to send (the dogs) off to (Advanced Individual Training),” he said.
Since Jericho and Vizer are already trained in the basics, they are serving as “trainers” for the inmates to learn the program before puppies are brought in, Rodock said.
“Right now, we are just assessing (the inmate’s) capability to maintain the dogs (and the training),” he said.
“We are testing our standard operation procedures,” added Stephen Hansen, JRCF deputy director for correctional programs. “We’ve never had dogs in here (to stay) before, so just little things like taking the dog outside to utilize the facilities is a pretty big deal for the correctional staff and us here to take care of.”
While having dogs around all the time is new to the inmates and staff, having them in the facility is not an all-around new experience, Hansen said. In July 2015, Human Animal Bond started making scheduled visits with dogs as part of the organization’s therapy program.
“Due to the success of this program, it made it very easy to decide to pursue the Dog Handler Care Program,” Hansen said. “Additionally, I believe that both inmates and staff have routinely seen the dogs from the Human Animal Bond in the facility, so it was a very easy transition to now see dogs on a daily basis.”
Starting with experienced dogs helps make the transition to the program easier for the inmates, too, said program action officer 1st Lt. Sidney Davis, 165th Military Police Company, 705th MP Battalion.
“This period allows the inmates to get used to how to train the dogs, so if (the program) does expand, they’ll have that knowledge and they can share it with the wider pool of inmates that come in and apply later down the line if we need more teams,” Davis said.
Currently, four inmates are participating in the trial run, as each dog has a primary handler and an alternate handler. The primary handler is with the dog from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the alternate handler is with the dog Saturday and Sunday.
To be considered to be handlers, Samson said, inmates cannot have had disciplinary action on them in the previous 90 days, must be recommended by program staff and must have demonstrated good behavior in previous work experience within the facility.
“This program really is a good incentive for the inmates that are here because having that ability to have a dog with them and have that companionship with them, it really is a motivator,” Samson said. “They know if they get in any kind of disciplinary trouble they’ll pretty much be losing that dog.
“It really is a good program to give that motivation and determination to try and do the right thing,” he said. “Also, by becoming a dog trainer, there are tons of opportunities for that, so it gives them a wider variety of things that they can do when they get out of here.”
Jericho’s handler said the potential to be a dog trainer when he’s released is already in the works.
“My brother already has plans for me to train some dogs when I get home,” he said. “I said, ‘I just started, bro.’
“The first day was rough. We had a couple accidents in the facility, but after that, we got it down to a science,” he said. “(Jericho and I) learn a lot from each other.”
The inmate said he felt lucky to be chosen for the program and to be Jericho’s primary handler.
“I grew up with dogs around all the time,” he said. “In the country, the dogs were never on a leash. Running around with them and the protectiveness of them, especially once they get to know you, is great. They’re not going to let anything happen to you.”
Vizer’s handler said he had a personal reason for wanting to be a part of the program.
“My mother had a service dog, and I really believed in the program,” he said. “I saw how much it helped her with her diabetes.
“She had a Chihuahua who could smell her ketones when they were off,” he said. “It would lick her face to remind her to check her blood sugar.
“I thought (the program) was a good way to help more people who need service dogs,” he added. “I thought it would be a good way to give back a little bit.”
Like Jericho’s handler, Vizer’s handler said there have been some learning curves.
“There hasn’t been anything we haven’t been able to adapt and overcome,” he said. “I’m sure there will be more changes that will come along in the future for the better, so it is nice being the guinea pig to find all these out so when we do get the puppies in, it will be much smoother.
“Patience is a big thing that (the program) has taught me because I’m not talking to another human where I can just tell you something,” he continued. “I have to show (Vizer). I have to explain things to him verbally and visually. You can’t lose your patience with a dog because they don’t know any better.”
Vizer’s handler said he has already noticed qualities that would make Vizer a good candidate for particular specialties.
“Some dogs just naturally perform tasks better than other dogs. (Vizer) may be a good mobility dog because when you go to get up and you push on his back, he stiffens up pretty good and allows you to push off of him,” he said. “He is also really good at carrying stuff in his mouth, which is in their breed. The dog also kind of tells you what they want to do.”