Of Canines and Convicts

A one-woman army and a handful of unwanted dogs may be the best hope of rehabilitation for Colorado's ever-growing prison population.

April 2008

Stevens' first thought was that she shouldn't have taken Midnight. The black Lab-German shepherd mix was donated to the program from a shelter in Lamar, and Stevens had never seen such a timid dog. Midnight had never been out of her own backyard, never been socialized with other dogs, never even been in a car. She threw up on the ride to the Cañon Complex.

After months of patient work with several handlers, Midnight finally began to open up. She learned a pile of tricks, like roll over, or say hello, where the dog puts out her paw to shake hands. The whole time, Midnight's profile sat on the dog program's adoption page. No one called for an interview.

A few months after Midnight arrived, another dog, Ruby, another Lab mix, came in as a boarder. She belonged to a family that needed help training Ruby as a companion dog for their mentally disabled son, Brennan. Ruby was smart and a quick learner, but high-strung; she'd never be a calm dog and Stevens knew it.

Sure enough, come go-home day, Ruby wouldn't work for Brennan. Stevens kneeled next to Brennan, who was curled in a fetal position, rocking in distress. "Brennan," she said, "Ruby is just never going to be the right dog for you. But if you'll trust me, we'll find the right one." She tapped Midnight and her trainer, who led the black dog into the meeting room. The trainer handed Brennan a liver treat for Midnight. Did he want Midnight to shake hands and say hello? Yes, said Brennan. Midnight held out a paw.

Three other dogs tested with Brennan that day after Midnight left, and all worked for him perfectly. But at the end Brennan said firmly, "I want Midnight." The dog, says Stevens, is still with the boy. And no one else ever called for an interview with the shy German shepherd mix.

For Stevens, saving dogs was the immediate reward the program offered to her. The program, which is certified as an animal rescue organization by the state, does about 50 percent rescue dogs and 50 percent board-ins, from families who send in a pup for training. Stevens estimates the program has helped about 3,000 dogs since its inception. It's never enough. "I could do 10,000 a year and still not make a scratch," she says. What she didn't expect was to feel the same bond with the offenders.

When asked what they learn in the program, offenders most often cite discipline and responsibility. They can also learn a trade; inmates in the program can take courses to get an associate's degree in canine behavior modification. They're all life skills. Discipline can help keep you from getting angry when you get cut off in traffic. Responsibility can help you deal with that guy you work with who knows you're a past offender and hates and fears you because of it. And both can help you get a job; Stevens says she's had numerous instances where an employer hired an offender from the program and mentioned to the parolee's case manager how much more put-together, how responsible, how professional the former inmate was compared to other applicants. But none of that—alone or together—will keep a person out of prison if he's forgotten what it's like to be a human being.

By the time the dog program reached Territorial in 2003, Stevens had an idea that there was something going on in the program that was changing the inmates for the better. "Most of the inmates in prison are like a little child captured in an adult body," she says. "Wherever in their lives they entered the dysfunction that got them here, they stopped developing. To make the jump to maturity there has to be a conscious effort, and acknowledgement that they don't have some of the skills."

By his own account, Robert Gerle was immature. "None of us [inmates] was a sound decision-maker with rational thinking skills," he says wryly. But prison doesn't exactly draw out the best in a person; doesn't produce the kind of social skills you need for life on the outside.

And if Maynard was an archetypal example of the problem inmate, he's now the model for the kind of hope the dog program offers offenders. He can dream of being a productive member of society, or maybe rekindling a relationship with the daughter he hasn't spoken to in six years, because he thinks he finally has the compassion to make it work.

But his thus-far remarkable transformation begs the question: How does the dog program work its magic? Do the inmates who enter the program suddenly become new men, or are they in the program because—like Maynard and Gerle—they've taken the time to examine their lives and make a commitment to change?

The answer, it seems, is somewhere in the middle. Stevens readily acknowledges that the dog program caters to a "higher level" of inmate and thus is set up for success. But a commitment does not a transformation make. If offenders make it into the program partly on a promise to change, they make it on the outside because of how the program enacts that change: by conferring skills like responsibility, goal setting, and patience, coupled with the rewards of work that making dorm furniture or working in the sign shop simply can never offer. The dog program gives them more than skills; it gives them humanity.