WARREN, Maine — They’re in there for the same reason. Both the men and the dogs broke society’s rules. Now the Maine State Prison brings misbehaving dogs together with inmates to help each other.
A rehabilitation program for both humans and dogs, K-9 Corrections takes puppies from the Humane Society of Knox County in Thomaston that are at risk of not being adopted and ships them to the minimum security prison where they are trained. Simultaneously, the prisoners learn patience and social skills as they teach the animals to behave.
Sadie, a black Lab, was locked in a cage for long stretches of time with her first family, which eventually gave her up because she was so bouncy and full of energy.
“When she came in she was like a kangaroo. She was abused in the sense that she was over-crated and didn’t get any freedom at all,” said Marie Finnegan, a local dog trainer who volunteers twice a week to teach prisoners how to train dogs.
According to the Humane Society of Knox County, Sadie is the typical sort of dog to enter K-9 Corrections. Often the shelter gets dogs that families adopted as puppies, but did not train. They grow up to be rude dogs who don’t understand rules. Sadie’s original family did not have much time for her training, then the couple had children. The couple was scared to have an untrained dog around their babies and gave it up.
Now Sadie, who is 8 months old, lives with her handler, Andy Pratt, 34, originally from Rockland, and her secondary handler, Josh McCarthy, 25, of Freeport. The two inmates usually would be forced to live in a room with three to five other men, but they get the perk of a two-man room for up to three months while they train the dog.
In the few weeks Pratt and McCarthy work with Sadie, she will learn how to sit, stay, lay down, walk on a leash and sleep in a crate. She also is being marker trained, which means she instantly is rewarded for performing a desired behavior. Pratt and the dog practiced this recently in the Bolduc Correction Facility’s library.
Because the dog is a few weeks into her marker training, she instantly put her nose on a metal bell that Pratt placed on the library floor. Pratt gave her a treat once the bell rang.
Pratt trained her so well, Finnegan asked him to help the other dog in the program, Scupper.
Scupper is tiny in comparison. He’s a 10-week-old puppy that Finnegan suspects is a boxer-lab-Rottweiler mix.
Scupper is in the program because as tiny as he is, he was bullying the other dogs at his first home.
Pratt put the bell down. The first step was to get Scupper to look at it. As soon as he did, which was almost immediately, Pratt bent down and gave him a treat. Then Scupper stared up at him. With no reward for just staring at the trainer, Scupper started barking repeatedly at Pratt.
“He’s frustrated,” Finnegan said. “He’s going to look at it any minute.”
Scupper kept barking at Pratt, then looked for his usual trainer, inmate David Crocker, and barked at him, pleading.
Both inmates stared at the shiny bell. The puppy looked at it. Pratt gave him a treat.
“It only takes 30 minutes to get it,” Pratt said.
This type of training is important for a couple of reasons: The prisoners learn that positive reinforcement works, and the dog learns how to learn.
“You’re teaching the dog to figure how to make things work for him,” Finnegan said. “They are working to get a reward. It’s like drug dog training. The dog finds the drugs because he wants to play with a toy — not because he wants to find drugs.”
The positive, reward-based training is essential to this program, Finnegan said. A lot of people who train their dogs use choke chains to punish dogs for bad behavior. She won’t allow that in the prison.
“I’m not going to teach prisoners to punish dogs. This is a big-picture thing. You don’t need to punish to get the dog to do what you want,” Finnegan said. “They’re leaning a skill they can use on the outside. It teaches patience. If you learn that your patience will earn you more, you do that. It gets you more.”
This lesson, she said, translates directly to the inmates’ human relationships.
“Some people don’t like this program because they think [the prisoners] are playing with dogs and this is prison and it’s supposed to be a hard place. This isn’t playing with dogs. It’s training them to get into homes and not be euthanized. It’s giving prisoners ways to deal with conflict in a nonviolent manner — which is important. They’re at the end of their sentences. They’ll get out,” Finnegan said.
Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren is a minimum security prison for inmates with less than five years to serve, so all of the inmates will get out of prison and re-enter society soon.
John Allen, 56, of Bath plans to get out in 20 months. He has trained about eight dogs through K-9 Corrections, which has been offered in the prison for five years. For the first time ever, the prison is allowing a prisoner to go to the Humane Society of Knox County for his work program. For eight hours a day, six days a week, Allen cleans crates, trains dogs, trains volunteer dog walkers and works with the cats as a shelter volunteer.
He has gone so dog-crazy he’s thinking of staying in the midcoast after he gets out of prison just so he can keep working at the shelter. He loves it there. He wants to get a job working with animals when he is free.
“This has opened a world of opportunity for me,” Allen said. “[The K-9 Corrections program] occupied my time and gave me a better sense of responsibility and it made me feel better about myself.”
The program has done the same for David Crocker, 37, of Winthrop. Crocker is a quiet, nervous man. He was so quiet at first that Finnegan thought she would have to fire him as a dog trainer.
Then, when she’d leave her Tuesday sessions and come back on a Saturday, she noticed that Crocker’s puppy had learned new things since she had seen him last.
“He’s doing so well now. It blows me away. I thought I was going to have to fire him,” she said. “I didn’t know he was learning because he didn’t give me any cues.”
That’s just his way, Crocker said. But the program is changing that. He didn’t like talking to people before. Soon after he was assigned Scupper, however, Crocker had 200 prisoners surrounding him, asking him about the puppy.
“I stay to myself. This has helped me get out and do this, even though I tend to stay away from people,” Crocker said. “It’s teaching me. It’s giving me self esteem. Getting a puppy 8 weeks old and having him pick things up real quick makes me feel good and people say, ‘good job.’”
And it makes his time fly by, so he has stopped counting the hours until his release in nine months.
Before the K-9 Corrections program, Crocker might have let people push him around a little. Now he stands his ground. Recently, a correctional officer encouraged the puppy to jump up — something Crocker specifically is working to teach the puppy not to do. So he told the prison official, “no.”
“I spoke with authority and that made me feel awkward, but it worked,” he said.
Crocker explained to the prison guard that he was training the puppy not to jump, and now he and the guard laugh about the situation.
The program is free for the prison. The animal shelter, which eventually takes back the dogs and adopts them out, gives Finnegan a small stipend which covers her gas money and dog treat expenses.
According to Sue Dumond, who works for the prison and monitors K-9 Corrections, the program brings in two dogs at a time. Up to four inmates can volunteer to be trainers at a time. The popularity of the program varies from year to year. Right now, the program is full. The prison likes the free programming because it helps inmates connect with the community through volunteer work.
“It gives them a responsibility — that’s the biggest thing. They live with [the dogs]. They might stay up with a dog all night if it’s sick,” Dumond said. “When you’re in prison, you’re taken care of. In this program you take care of someone other than yourself.”
Further, the puppies have changed more than just the trainers in the program.
“The atmosphere is different when a puppy comes in. Everyone likes a puppy,” Dumond said.
According to Allen, who works at the humane society and has seen a lot of dogs go in and out of the prison, “You can see the biggest, most tattooed, weight-lifting inmate melt at the sight of a puppy.”
Part of this is because the prisoners in the program learn compassion and how to love, according to Humane Society of Knox County’s executive director, Tracy Fala.
“It helps everyone. It’s a win-win for us because we don’t have the resources for dogs that need attention and are at risk for not being adopted,” Fala said. “It’s a win-win for the prison because these inmates have nothing but time and they learn a skill set from the trainer.”
She said it changes the inmates’ perspective on how to handle pets and how to treat other living things.
“I don’t know how you measure that,” she said, “but to me it seems that in a prison setting that’s a powerful thing.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Humane Society of Knox County’s executive director Tracy Sala as Tracy Fala.