By Lisa Waggoner
“The rehabilitation of inmates requires a willing state of mind, a helpful attitude which insists upon finding something of value even in those who have devalued themselves beyond personal hope of redemption…guided by the philosophy of maximum value on human rights and dignity.” – William H. Lyle, Jr., Ph.D.
The above quote is from Behavioral Science and Modern Penology (1973), a book of articles compiled and edited by my dad, Bill Lyle, with assistance from Thetus Horner, an inmate at the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
In March of 2004, I was honing my skills as a professional dog trainer at Peaceable Paws in Hagerstown, Maryland at a Pat Miller instructor academy. My route to class took me by a correctional facility, the Maryland Correctional Institution.
Hagerstown is such a beautiful part of the country; the stark visual difference between the early spring green of manicured lawns and chartreuse leaflets emerging on trees alongside the road contrasted with the drab yellow, weathered walls of the facility surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire and razor wire, and stunned me.
While unsettling, however, the stark prison also brought about sweet memories of my dad who had worked in similar buildings as a chief psychologist in maximum security prisons. With a Ph.D in clinical psychology, he understood learning theory, and in the early 1960s he was considered a pioneer in prisoner rehabilitation. He lobbied against the punishment of inmates (physical beatings and solitary confinement) and for positive reinforcement in their recovery.
My dad passed in 1984, long before I aspired to be a dog trainer. I was filled with emotions as I drove by that prison in Maryland on my way to class 20 years later. I thought about the challenges my dad must have faced while trying to implement science-based, positive reinforcement programs to change the behavior of incarcerated men.
I was a fledgling trainer in 2004, but I already had a sound understanding of learning theory. That knowledge gave me such appreciation for the challenges he must have experienced way back then. Dad had used positive reinforcement to effect change in humans’ behavior (including mine as a child) and I was now using positive reinforcement to effect change in a dog’s behavior.
Looking at the prison through my car window I thought, “One day I’d like to teach a dog training program in a prison.” Just eight years later, that thought turned into reality.
Our dog training company, Cold Nose College, has been teaching a dog training program at the Georgia Department of Corrections Colwell Probation Detention Center, a minimum-security, short-term sentencing facility housing probation and parole violators in Blairsville, Georgia, since July of 2012. The superintendent of the facility, Diane Hassett, had already partnered with a local rescue group and worked through almost all the red tape for the program’s approval. All that was left was selecting a dog trainer.
I was sitting at my desk one day writing a training report for a client when the phone rang. I anticipated a client on the other end of the line, so imagine my surprise when it was the head of the local rescue group asking if we’d consider being the dog trainers for a new program focused on the rehabilitation of incarcerated men through the training of rescue dogs who would live in the facility.
I dare say I blurted out “Yes!” before the question was even fully asked. I was absolutely gleeful. We had only one stipulation – that all training techniques would be through the use of positive reinforcement. They agreed. My colleagues at Cold Nose College, Brad Waggoner and Tiffany Lovell, and I were each ecstatic about our involvement and the possibilities for the program.
The so-named Rescued Program is the first rehabilitation program to use rescue dogs within the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). According to Supt. Hassett, the goal is to “help the detainees gain viable skills that will enable them to gain employment upon re-entry into their communities thus giving them a chance of being ‘rescued’ from the revolving door of incarceration.”
The program’s additional mission is to train the rescue dogs so they gain the family manners skills needed to be adopted and live happily in the homes of local residents. Beyond Supt. Hassett and two GDC employees, all the individual parts of the program are led by volunteers.
The 2012 program kicked off with six men and four dogs and was 10 weeks in length. Because the facility is a detention center, the average maximum sentence is 180 days. Scheduling more frequent programs every 10 weeks was designed to allow more men and dogs to participate.
A local rescue group chose the dogs for the first program. The detainees and dogs lived together 24/7 in a 216-square-foot room with multiple bunks, four dog crates, and the requisite dog gear. The program was so successful the first year in reducing recidivism (i.e. the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend) that approval was granted to increase the number of men and the dogs in the program.
Today, the program is 12 weeks in length with eight to 10 detainees working with six to eight dogs chosen by the two shelter partners, Castoff Pet Rescue and the Humane Society Mountain Shelter. In addition to the dog training component, there are 11 other volunteer programs that focus on teaching the detainees a wide variety of hard and soft job skills. Because many of the men have backgrounds of substance abuse, there’s also a team of addiction advisors who counsel and support the men on their road to recovery.
The men and dogs now reside in an 1,100-square-foot dorm that includes six double bunks; a dog grooming and bathing area; and a library of positive dog training books, DVDs, and publications donated by fellow trainers from around the United States. The detainees have full responsibility for the care, well-being, and training of their canine partners.
To be selected for a spot in the program each detainee completes a written application, including an essay explaining why he wants to be involved and what he hopes to gain from the program. A stringent background check rules out those with violent crimes or crimes against animals or children.
Once the superintendent, the correctional officer in charge of the program, and the counselor of the facility review the applications, the final candidates go through a panel interview that includes observing each detainee interacting with Dennis (named after Dennis the Menace), Supt. Hassett’s adorable rescue Labradoodle.
The interview questions revolve around the information in their essays, along with three important questions:
• Why should we choose you over another applicant?
• What’s your definition of integrity?
• When was the last time someone said they were proud of you and why?
Does the panel interview sound like a job interview to you? If so, you’re spot on. To say the detainees are nervous is an understatement.
Most detainees in the facility covet a spot in the Rescued Program. No more living in a large dorm of 60 men and no more working in another area of the facility needed to support the Colwell population. It really is for those reasons many of the detainees apply for the program.
They think it’s easy street. If they’re lucky enough to be selected for the program, they learn very quickly it’s anything but easy. Yes, they get to live with the unconditional love of a dog, but their day starts at 4:30 a.m. and nearly every hour of the day and most of the evening is filled with a learning program or homework, in addition to taking care of their dog.
The dog training program focuses on helping the men gain dog handling and training skills which they then use to teach the dogs family manners skills. We kick off the program even before the dogs arrive. We present a two-hour, interactive PowerPoint presentation on dog body language and share an overview of learning theory. We believe it’s important for the detainees to understand how dogs learn, which helps them apply those same principles to people.
Brad Waggoner, my husband and business partner, and I train at the facility one day a week for two hours. We’re joined by Jim Ross, a former Cold Nose College trainer, now retired, who relishes his volunteer work at Colwell.
The time is divided into hands-on training with detainees and dogs, followed by a debriefing without dogs. We teach a Family Manners curriculum which includes a variety of impulse control behaviors (sit, down, go to mat) and life skills the dogs will need when entering a new home, such as loose-leash walking, polite greetings, trade, leave it, and, of course, targeting and some tricks. We also spend some time introducing nose work and agility for fun.
Through the use of positive reinforcement training techniques, the men learn they’re able to bring about change in their dog without the use of fear, force, or intimidation. They gain patience and appreciation for the dog in front of them. They begin to understand how to think about what they want a dog to do vs. merely trying to stop a behavior.
It’s usually around week two of training when one of the detainees will say, “You know, I could probably use this type of teaching and training with my children.” A light bulb moment! The detainees learn a new way of looking at life through the training of their rescue dog.
Those of you who read this publication understand how impactful a dog can be in changing human life. That’s even more true with the detainees and their rescued dogs. For many of these men, it’s the first time they’ve received unconditional love and the first time they’ve taken responsibility for the care and well-being of another living being. It’s also the first time many receive positive reinforcement for their own actions.
Their hearts begin to open to let in compassion and empathy for their dog and those qualities spread into other areas of their lives.
It’s also the first time many of the men have worked together as a team. At the conclusion of the hands-on training session, we give the men an additional assignment. We ask them to look in their library and find supportive information about a specific training technique. A recent topic was shaping, so they were to select a book and choose something about shaping.
During the debrief a week later when Brad [Waggoner] asked, “So what did you find out about shaping?” he was caught off guard. Usually, only two or three men follow through with the assignment. This time it was different. The first detainee said, “I looked in the book Don’t Shoot the Dog [by Karen Pryor, 1999] and found the 10 Laws of Shaping. Law #1 is…” He cited it verbatim. Then, the second detainee said, “Law #2 is….” And, you guessed it – verbatim.
Each of the following detainees took the next law until they had covered all 10. Not only did they have enough interest and commitment to follow through with the assignment, but they worked as a team to plan and deliver it. Yes, change happening right before our eyes.
The dog training program is only one of many that effect change in the detainees. Supt. Hassett’s leadership has developed a culture within the Colwell Probation Detention Center (PDC) that focuses on respect, self-control, and discipline in all detainees. Integrity is included and is a major focus of the program. The program defines integrity as “Doing what’s right even when no one else is looking.” Officer Philip Carter, the officer in charge of the Rescued Program, leads an ongoing integrity class.
So now we’ve covered the full scope of what the detainees learn, here’s a listing of the other Rescued Program contributors, which has grown over the last eight years:
• A professor from North Georgia Technical College who teaches Basic Computer and Resume Building Skills;
• Adam Born of United Community Bank, who presents How to Start a Small Business and Money Management;
• Counselor Neal Wiley, who teaches an Anger Management course;
• Dr. Patti Barnes and Dr. Dwaine Zagrocki of Union County Animal Hospital in Blairsville, Georgia, who teach a Basic Animal Health Class;
• Georgia Best, who teaches a weekly class to help detainees learn job interview and résumé building skills, including the soft skills necessary during a job interview;
• WorkSource Georgia, a federally funded program that helps detainees learn how to job search;
• Addiction Advisors, Charlie and Linda Johnston, both with intimate experience of substance abuse and recovery, who lead a substance abuse class;
• St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, which conducts a weekly class on Problem Solving with Spirituality;
• Probation Expectations, which is led by the GDC Department of Community Supervision to help detainees understand the expectations and responsibilities of time on probation;
• A Community Outreach program which allows detainees to periodically participate in community events;
• Valerie Suarez, the groomer at Alternative Veterinary Services in Blairsville, Georgia, teaches dog grooming skills.
After the program, the detainees are awarded On the Job Training Certificates in Grooming by Central Georgia College.
All of us who volunteer with the Rescued Program are dedicated, committed, and passionate about the work we do. There’s no doubt we get as much, if not more, from the program as we give. It’s a labor of love for all of us.
At the conclusion of the 12 weeks, it’s time for the formal graduation ceremony. The Colwell staff works diligently to create an upbeat, festive environment worthy of the accomplishments of the detainees and their dogs.
Until the pandemic hit, the detainees, Colwell staff, and volunteers were joined by detainee families, members of the community, and the local press, along with a motivational guest speaker. The crowd normally averaged 100 people. Unfortunately, families were not able to attend the last graduation ceremony. We hope that will change for future graduation ceremonies post-COVID.
There’s never a dry eye in the room as each man steps up to the podium to deliver his personal impact statement. Imagine walking up to a podium and speaking in front of a group of strangers. It’s a first for most of these men.
Some prepare a script, others speak off the cuff, but each speaks from their heart about how the program has changed them. Apologies are offered to their families, thanks are given to the people who touched their lives, including the dogs who were the catalyst for change.
Hopes are high – every single person in attendance feels it. The baskets of tissues spread throughout the room are there for a reason. Those tissues dry the tears of appreciation, joy, and hope.
After the formal indoor ceremony, it’s time for the crowd to head out of doors so each man can demonstrate his training achievements. One by one the men and dogs show what they’ve learned. After rousing applause, pizza, cake, and ice cream are enjoyed by all, but never more than by the detainees themselves – those foods are not offered in the daily life of a detainee.
After the men finish the program and are released from Colwell, we stay in touch with them through the Rescued Program Alumni Facebook page. It’s a private page for graduates, Colwell staff, and volunteers so that we can continue to support and motivate the men as they navigate life outside bars.
Brad and I also invite the men to “friend us” on Facebook once they’re on the outside. I suspect some people would be frightened by that type of connection, but we aren’t. The relationships we develop with the men during the program are built on trust and respect. It’s reinforcing for us to witness their productive lives outside of Colwell.
Unfortunately, it’s also apparent from Facebook posts when a man’s life turns dark and he slips into substance abuse again. I’ve shed more than a few tears of sorrow when I see a graduate with great potential take that backslide, but it’s important to focus on the success stories.
One of the detainees in the very first round of the Rescued Program, Sean Rice, is not only a story of success, but an example of giving back. Before his sentencing at Colwell PDC, Sean acquired an associate degree in business, yet was struggling to find employment.
In an attempt to make ends meet, he made the unfortunate decision to sell drugs and was sentenced to six months in Colwell and seven years of probation for possession of marijuana and the sale and distribution of marijuana. He’d been in the facility for only two months when he joined the Rescued Program.
Sean says, “Out of everything offered at Colwell, Rescued makes the greatest impact on the person participating in it. With every class that passes, elements are designed and refined to not only change the character of the detainee but also give tools to help achieve a life beyond the walls after release.”
Sean was a model detainee in Colwell and the Rescued program. He received an early release for his good behavior, and with the dog grooming skills he acquired in the program, Sean found full-time employment as a groomer for a local grooming establishment. When the grooming instructor for the Rescued Program was no longer able to volunteer, Sean welcomed the opportunity to step into the role.
“My drive to want to be a volunteer with the program is to help people develop skills that I was able to gain and make a living from,” he said. Sean served as the grooming instructor for five years. Today, he is the business office manager for a performing arts center in his local community.
David Protsman came into the program a very angry man. He says, “I hated anyone with a badge or authority.” His offenses included multiple DUIs and reckless driving, fleeing and eluding police, theft by receiving stolen property, and theft by taking. He started drinking at age 14, which led to alcoholism and drug abuse.
He received three DUIs and served time in several different correctional facilities before the age of 24. His behavior continued to deteriorate over the years and on August 14, 2014, he found himself in a high-speed chase approaching a roadblock.
His escape came to a halt and that incident was the beginning of his surrender. David says he was at the lowest point of his life. He wanted to change but didn’t know how. After 11 months in jail followed by a trial, he was sentenced to six months at Colwell PDC. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says.
After joining the Rescued Program his change was dramatic. David’s excellent behavior in the program caused the GDC to reduce his probation by 13 years. On the day of his release as he was walking out of the facility, he turned back and yelled, “I love this program and I love you all.” Quite a change coming from a man who hated anyone with a badge or with authority.
Today, David is gainfully employed with a construction company and he builds custom cabinets. “I’m very appreciative for everything I learned and all the skills I got from the Rescued Program,” he says. “It’s changed my life. I’m a homeowner. I’m engaged. Life is good and it just continues to get better.”
You can see and hear David speak about the program in the video Colwell Rescued Program Gives Offenders and Dogs a Second Chance (2018) created by the GDC and filmed during a graduation.
Earlier this year, the Rescued Program team participated in Georgia Addiction Recovery Day hosted by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse and David joined us. At time marker 34:37 in the video Pets and Recovery, he shares his journey to recovery.
At the time of writing, 225 men have graduated from the Rescued Program. The success rate of the program hovers around 60%, meaning 60% of the men in the program are continuing to live their lives as productive citizens of their communities.
Compare that to the national number of 30% success (meaning 70% are rearrested) and it is clear what a success this program is in helping men succeed in life outside bars. And more than the lives of the men are saved; 196 dogs have been placed in happy, loving homes, many adopted by their detainee handlers.
We are honored to have received three top awards from the Georgia Department of Corrections for our involvement with the program: Volunteer Partner Agency of the Year (2018) and Volunteer of the Year (2012 and 2014). We hope to motivate other trainers to seek out ways to become involved in similar programs. We’re always happy to share our experiences and welcome interested parties to contact us.
You may need to take the lead in starting a program. The first step is to identify a shelter or rescue group that can provide appropriate dogs – those with common behavior problems vs. serious behavior challenges. Once you have a shelter partner, you should research the county, state, or federal correctional facilities near you. Do online research to find out who in the facility is the appropriate person to contact. It might be best to target the Office of Public Affairs or the communication manager within one of the facilities to understand the chain of command in your chosen facility. I suspect you’ll need perseverance and tenacity throughout the process.
Every time I walk through the doors of the Colwell Probation Detention Center I think of my dad. I wish I could tell him of the immense joy I receive from watching the men and dogs change right before my very eyes. My belief is that one small act of kindness to a dog or another human being creates ripples throughout the world. If each of us can share our kindness, our knowledge, and the love of what we do to help other people and dogs learn and grow, then the world is a better place.
Horner. T.W. (Author), & Lyle, W.H. (Compiler). (1973). Behavioral Science and Modern Penology a Book of Readings. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher Ltd.
GA Corrections. (2019, January 2). Colwell PDC “Rescued” Graduation [Video File]
GA Corrections. (2018, July 10). Colwell Rescued Program Gives Offenders and Dogs a Second Chance [Video File]
GA Corrections. (2016, June 1). Rescued Program Colwell PDC [Video File]
Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. (2021, February 4). Pets and Recovery [Video File]
Pryor, K. (1999). Don’t Shoot the Dog. New York, NY: Bantam Books
Rescued Program on Facebook
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, September 2021, pp.14-22. Read the full article
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About the Author
Lisa Waggoner is a certified professional dog trainer – knowledge assessed, a certified separation anxiety trainer, faculty member for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior and is the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. With locations in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota, the company’s trainers specialize in separation anxiety, coaching and mentoring aspiring dog trainers, and provide behavior case support for experienced trainers.