Stafford Creek Corrections Center Goes to the Dogs

All photos courtesy of Freedom Tails/Stafford Creek Corrections Center

A look at the state’s first canine-training program for male inmates.

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When the recession first took shape four years ago, the Washington State Department of Corrections faced massive budget constraints. To mitigate this crisis, prisons statewide began exploring cost-effective alternatives to traditional inmate programs.

Pat Glebe, superintendent of Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen, proposed a novel solution: a dog-training program that allowed inmates to personally care for and train abandoned canines. When the training concluded, local families would be able to adopt the animals and provide them with stable homes. Similar programs had existed at female prisons in Washington since the 1980s, but none of the state’s male facilities had implemented them.

The Stafford Creek dog-training program was officially launched in Spring 2009. Eight dogs comprised the inaugural graduating class, and over time the class size doubled. Today, more than 160 dogs have successfully completed their 10-week training at Stafford Creek – and nearly every other male prison in the state has adopted a similar program.

Glebe explained that the program has many beneficiaries. The dogs are saved from euthanasia and taught basic obedience skills. The offenders, many of whom are serving lengthy sentences, learn how to train an animal and treat it with respect. Adoptive owners receive a well-trained, family-friendly pet. And from a taxpayer’s perspective, the program costs nothing. “I like to call it a win-win-win-win,” he said, adding that volunteer support at all levels has sustained the program.

Glebe initially appointed Custody Unit Supervisor Dennis Cherry to develop the program. Cherry reached out to a local animal shelter named North Beach PAWS about handling the dog adoption and follow-up procedures. When the shelter officially signed on, he drew up an operation memorandum and formed a committee to oversee the inmate screening process.

Only prisoners from Cherry’s minimum-security unit were allowed to submit applications for the first 10-week course. The following year, the program expanded to include inmates from one of Stafford Creek’s medium-security units, led by Custody Unit Supervisor Chris Grubb. The two men currently co-manage the program.

Cherry explained that the screening process begins with a classification counselor who has access to inmate files. This individual reviews each applicant’s history of criminal offenses, as well as any infractions incurred at Stafford Creek; a single infraction within the previous calendar year is grounds for automatic disqualification. “We look at everything,” Cherry said. “We don’t like to put guys [who have been convicted of domestic violence] in here, and we won’t even look at a guy who has abused animals.”

A rigorous interview process begins once all of the viable candidates have been chosen. Each applicant meets with Cherry and other committee members to review program expectations. He explained that these sit-downs are modeled after a typical job interview; as such, applicants are ‘graded’ on everything from wardrobe choice to how well they perform during scenario-based exercises. Experience with dogs is another major consideration, though Cherry added that this is not necessarily a requirement.

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The inmates selected to be dog trainers are eventually moved to a area of the prison designated for the program. Throughout the course, each dog cohabits a cell with two inmates. The primary handler accompanies the dog to class, takes care of walking responsibilities and maintains the journal. The secondary handler, who also attends training classes, acts as a substitute when the primary handler is away from the cell. As long as both men remain in the program, they alternate roles for every 10-week course; Cherry noted the retention rate is generally high.

North Beach Paws begins selecting dogs to participate in the training as Cherry and his committee conduct the interviews. Two long-time volunteers with the organization, Joan Baus and Debby Valdez, curate the program’s canines from shelters throughout southwestern Washington. “The dogs have to be people-friendly and dog-friendly,” Baus said. “They’re going to be living in an environment close to other dogs and with a lot of people.”

As the field of inmate applicants is narrowed down, Deb Thomas-Blake, Stafford Creek’s volunteer dog trainer, begins selecting abused and abandoned dogs to participate in the program. A veteran corrections officer with nearly 40 years of dog-training experience, Thomas-Blake travels to shelters throughout Washington to handpick each canine and transport them to Stafford Creek. She explained that many of the dogs arrive at the prison with behavioral issues. “Ninety-nine percent of the dogs have had no structure, no boundaries, no interaction,” she said, adding that many animals arrive with visible physical and/or emotional injuries.

She says most dogs pass the course without incident, though some have been removed from the program for their inability to adapt to their new surroundings. For this reason, she attempts to curate dogs that are able to not only excel in the training program, but also withstand the strange, potentially upsetting prison environment. Dogs that refrain from growling at strange people and initiate appropriate eye contact make prime candidates, while animals that appear overly aggressive or become easily agitated are rarely considered.

In addition to selecting the dogs, Thomas-Blake handles other preliminary concerns, such as food, veterinary appointments and various supply orders for toys, shampoo and other necessities – expenses that far outweigh the $200 accrued by the prison through the adoption fee. To mitigate these chronic financial losses, she and a handful of other Stafford Creek volunteers formed a non-profit organization named Freedom Tails in 2011. The organization raises funds to ensure the dog-training program remains sustainable without financial support from the state government; otherwise, Thomas-Blake notes, the program would be “unethical”.

During the first two weeks of training, each dog wears a red bandanna that restricts its interaction to the primary handler and other trainers. This phase is intended to acclimate the animals to their new surroundings and impart a few fundamentals of doggie etiquette, such as housebreaking and basic commands. From day one, each handler keeps a detailed journal of his dog’s progress at various stages of the program.

The dogs wear yellow bandannas for the subsequent six weeks, which means other inmates may pet them as long as the handler gives his consent. Thomas-Blake explained that obstacle courses play a large role throughout the intermediate training phase. “Obstacle courses increase a dog’s self-confidence,” she said. “You’ll see them have a real issue with [obstacle courses] the first time, and by the end of the class they’re all happily leaping up the carpeted wall and going through our homemade tunnel made of chairs and plastic mats.” For the final two weeks of class, the dogs are awarded green bandannas, which allow anyone in Stafford Creek to freely approach the animals and interact with them.

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Throughout the training, two longtime volunteers with North Beach Paws, Joan Baus and Debby Valdez, coordinate the adoption of each dog once it has completed the program. Once the canines arrive at Stafford Creek, Baus and Valdez upload a photo of each dog to the Freedom Tails website, as well as PetFinder. Those who wish to adopt a dog from the program must first submit a letter of interest to North Beach Paws (a link is provided), followed by a formal application for adoption. Baus explained that stable households, steady employment and pet history are some of the criteria considered for each applicant. But ultimately, she said, the adoptive families are selected based on what is best for each dog. “A high-energy dog does not go to a little old grandma sitting in her recliner all day,” she said. “Or if it’s a lap-dog, you don’ t want someone who wants to run with it three to five miles a day.”

Baus notes the economic advantage of adopting a dog from Freedom Tails. For $200, new owners receive a canine that has been spayed, neutered, wormed, fully vaccinated and treated for any preexisting medical conditions – not to mention, obedient and family-friendly. She estimates that the average dog from a shelter costs between $300 and $350 to adopt, and this price tag may not cover additional medical expenses – or guarantee a well-behaved pet. She added that North Beach Paws and Stafford Creek volunteers conduct follow-up interviews with adoptive families to ensure they are satisfied with their new dogs, and the results so far have been overwhelmingly positive.

At the end of the tenth week, the training culminates with a graduation ceremony at Stafford Creek, to which the new owners are invited. The dogs display their newly acquired skills for the audience before receiving their certificates of completion. After the ceremony, the handlers present their dog’s new owners with the completed journal, and offer suggestions on how to best care for the animal. For many inmates, the graduation ceremony is also a tearful goodbye – though returning handlers soon receive their new trainees shortly thereafter.

While an official evaluation has not been conducted, Glebe noted the training program’s positive effect on the entire prison. “I try to measure violence rates against other facilities, and ours is low – one of the lowest in the state,” he said. “I think offenders look forward to doing something constructive when they have the opportunity. They feel like they’re giving back and making a difference.”

The current batch of ‘students’ is tentatively slated to graduate next month. Web users are able to view each dog on the program’s official website. For more information about the program, please visit Freedom Tails or North Beach Paws online.