JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Lago and Laredo aren’t the typical residents of a correctional facility.
The brothers, having never been convicted of any crimes, eat, sleep, live and play behind imposing security fences among the inmates and military guards of the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The facility, built to house service members convicted of violating the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, was not intended to confine two fluffy, friendly puppies. Playful and easily excited, the puppies generally introduce themselves to strangers with a slobbery lick and tails wagging so quickly they seem poised to generate enough lift for the jet-black dogs to start gaining altitude.
“We are working with a nonprofit organization called Canine Companions for Independence that provides puppies to both correctional facilities and the civilian community for training to become service dogs for individuals with physical or mental disabilities, including some wounded warriors,” said Maj. Shawn C. Keller, the deputy facility commander. “We are the first Army correctional facility to implement the program.”
Keller, who also volunteers for the training program at the facility, said not only does CCI benefit by having the puppies trained at the facility, but the inmates also see benefits in raised morale, reduced stress and skills that the handlers could potentially use once released from custody.
“Who doesn’t love a puppy?” said Keller. “Most of the guys here have been separated from their families for quite some time and just seeing the furry little guys walking around raises morale.”
Boundlessly energetic and only 11 weeks old, the two golden retriever-black Labrador mixes are the new best friends of a group of inmates who have volunteered to train and live side-by-side with the puppies for the next 15 to 18 months.
“The four inmates who were chosen for the program went through a required application process, had to write a letter expressing why they wanted to be involved in the program, and as well as a review of why they were at the facility, they had to go through a three member review board,” said Keller. “Once selected, they put in a lot of work cleaning the building where they would be staying and preparing for the dogs.”
Inside the newly converted building, which once housed the facilities trustees and later became space for storage, the four handlers and two puppies live alongside one another, allowing for maximum care and attention for the animals.
Veronica R. Quezada, a parole clerk at the facility and one of two civilian volunteers for the program, said the benefit of having inmates train and handle the dogs is the amount of interaction and attention the animals receive.
“The handlers have nothing but time, so they do a lot of hands-on activities, the puppies are able to be on a schedule with nap times throughout the day and the inmates are able to crate train the dogs a lot better in order for them to be able to go out and do their daily jobs,” she said. “This is a huge benefit because they have a lot more time for hands on training than say a volunteer in a civilian home.”
Even though the inmates spend a lot of time training and raising the dogs, there are still some things that they cannot provide to the animals; this is where Keller, and his civilian volunteers, Quezada and Rhoda Granum, a civilian parole officer at the facility, pick up the slack.
“We will take the puppies home with us, and because we have children, other dogs, and a cat, the dogs get the socialization that the prisoners can’t provide,” said Quezada. “You don’t want the dogs to be afraid of different noises and different smells, which they have to get used to at a young age.”
But despite the work and responsibility that comes with caring for the dogs, the inmates who have been able to spend time with the puppies said the animals have already had an impact on their lives in the facility.
“The program gives the people who are going to be in a facility for a long period of time a companion,” said one inmate. “For me, it’s a good stress reliever because you can always go to him and he’ll be there.”
“The dogs just bring out the best in people,” added another inmate. “There are always smiles when the dog is around and it’s a big morale booster.”
Looking beyond life in the facility and the immediate rewards that come with caring for the puppies, the benefits for the dog handlers will go beyond stress relief and improved morale.
“In addition to the therapeutic value they are receiving from raising the dogs they are also learning a skill, especially with having the professional regional trainer and the training that the prisoners are receiving from her,” said Keller. “So potentially they will be able to apply what they learn in a civilian setting.”
“One of the handlers has expressed his interest in training dogs after he is released from the facility,” he added.
Even with the skills that the handlers were learning, most were quick not to lose sight of the big picture; the program was ultimately about helping other people.
“Some of the prisoners look at this as a way to give back to the community,” said Quezada. “When they are in here they can’t really do a lot to repay for what their actions have cost them, so it’s a way to sort of make amends for some of the things that they have done.”
“My best friend back home is paralyzed,” said one of the handlers. “For me to be able to help with special assistance dogs kind of hits home and it’s just a good feeling to be able to help someone else.”
Keller said he hopes the program grows so that other inmates have the opportunity to help others by participating in the facilities program.
“I would like to see this as a permanent vocational program recognized by Army Corrections Command and potentially instituted at some of the larger institutions that the Army has,” said Keller. “I think the dividends of this program pay more than any extra work that goes along with having the dogs.”
But for now, the facility and handlers are taking it one day at a time focusing on Lago and Laredo and the ultimate goal of the program.
“It was a lot of work for us, the handlers, and our volunteers; it’s been a big team effort,” said Keller. “But we just hope that with these first two puppies we do a good enough job that we actually get to see them eventually graduate through the entire program and then be paired up with a disabled individual.”