Paws in Prison

By DANIEL MARSH Published May 10, 2012 at 3:20 a.m.
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— Seventeen inmates sat at six tables in the commissary of the Ouachita River Correctional Unit in Malvern. Sitting at their feet or, in some cases, lounging on the cement floor were eight dogs.

Carrie Kessler, a professional dog trainer, asked three of the inmates to put their respective animals through a series of AKC Canine Good Citizen tests. If they passed the tests, the dogs - Honey, Pepper and Tyson - would be certified for adoption.

Inmate Anthony Whaler took Tyson, a boxerhound mix, through his paces. Speaking softly and moving calmly, Whaler instructed Tyson to stay; walk through a crowd (a few volunteer inmates); thread an obstacle course of orange cones; andvisit with the other dogs.

“Very nice,” Kessler said as Tyson finished to applause. All three dogs passed their AKC tests and will go to homes.

The dogs are trained by inmates selected for the Paws in Prison program, a partnership between the Arkansas Department of Correction and the Central Arkansas Rescue Effort for Animals and other animal shelters and advocate groups.

“The inmates know that without this program, the dogs would not otherwise be here,” said Dina Tyler, ADC assistant director. Since Dec. 8, when the program started, Paws in Prison has graduated or found homes for 40 dogs rescued from shelters with high kill rates. The Ouachita unit has thus far trained four “classes” of dogs.

“I adopted a dog out of the first class,” said Jeremy Andrews, assistant warden. “She was a lemonyellow basset hound. When I saw her, I had to have her. When she first showed up here, she looked so poor.”

Trainer Ashley Shoaf said she visits animal shelters looking for dogs to place in the program.

“I walk into a shelter and I sit down,” she said, demonstrating with Dundee, a “mouthy” Labrador mix. “If a dog gets all excited to see me sit down, that’s what I’m looking for. We want dogs that want to be with people.”

Signs of aggression or nervousness are undesirable.

“I’ll take a metal bowl and throw it across the room, and if a dog freaks out, we don’t want it in the prison,” Shoaf said. “A prison is a loud place,and we don’t want dogs that curl up in a corner.”

Shoaf said the goal is to produce dogs that are friendly, housebroken and respond to simple commands.

“They can walk into a family’s home and be a good house pet,” she said.

Training the dogs is also therapeutic for inmates.

“I’ve seen a 300-pound inmate get down and roll around on the floor with one of the dogs,” Shoaf said. “You just saw a different guy.”

Some inmates have never even owned a pet.

“I asked one of my inmates what was his last pet, and he said that the week before, he’d caught a fly,” Shoaf said. “To him, that counted.”

Inmates who have a good disciplinary record and who have committed no crimes against animals are considered for the program.

Tyler said the program is intended to both reduce the number of animals who are euthanized in shelters, and rehabilitate inmates. She said it costs about $350 to pay for the upkeep of each animal. Donations fund the program, and donations are always needed, Tyler said.

“We only really need two things,” she said. “Donations and good families.”

Each dog is assigned to two inmate trainers. The dogs sleep in the inmates’ cells and usually accompany their trainers to work or school, Tyler said.

“It’s a lot of responsibilityand work,” Tyler said.

Each group of trainers includes inmates serving life sentences, she said, because most of those in the program will eventually be released.

“We need some inmates who can help mentor the transient ones,” she said. “Almost 90 percent of these guys are going back home. We want them to go home different than they arrived.”

Inmates Robert Gordon and Jason Johnson have spent the past four weeks training Dundee. Gordon said the program is “excellent.”

“I’ve seen the tremendous impact this program can have,” Gordon said. “Dundee here is our mascot in the faithbased unit.”He and Johnson are totally responsible for Dundee’s care.

“We bathe him. We trim his nails. We brush him,” Gordon said.

Gordon said newer inmates often ask how they can get a dog of their own.

“I always tell them to become a model inmate,” Gordon said.

“This is a chance for us to give back. We’ve made bad choices, but this way, we’re able to redeem ourselves.” He said he has enjoyed helping train Dundee.

“He’s 8 months old and just a puppy,” Gordon said of the enthusiastic dog. Training a dog that “gets bored easy takes patience, practice and a lot of love.”

He said many dogs that end up in shelters have been abandoned and abused.

“Here they get the love they need,” he said.

Gordon said he and Johnson became attached to the first dog they trained, and that letting go of the animals can be difficult.

“It took a little while to get over it,” he said of the adoption of their first dog. “We miss them all. We think about them all.”

To learn more about Paws in Prison, go to All of the dogs that are available for adoption through the program can be viewed on the website. Donations canbe mailed to the Arkansas Department of Correction, P.O. Box 8707, Pine Bluff, AR 71611.

Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or

None DANIEL MARSH can be reached at .

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