“The dog didn't ask him why he was in jail or what he had been arrested for,” Montgomery Correctional Center K9 Coordinator Lisa Harrell said.
“He said he felt loved and accepted for the first time in a long time, and that came from the dog.”
On December 15, 2021, K9s For Warriors partnered with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to present the inaugural Paws For Change graduating class.
Eight inmates at the Montgomery Correctional Center spent approximately 12 weeks training four shelter dogs to become Service Dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.
The Paws For Change program touched the lives of not only inmate participants but also K9s For Warriors dog trainers.
An Overwhelming Impact
Malique Pye, who has trained K9s For Warriors Service Dogs since 2020, said when offered the chance to instruct the inmate participants, he jumped at the opportunity.
“My life could have gone left,” Pye said. “I was very close to going down other paths. Art and animals — that’s all it took for me. That’s what I decided to stick with, and it led me in the right direction.”
He said he could be easily living a very different life today.
“If I would have followed the influences that were very close and thrown in my face, I could have been in jail or worse,” Pye said.
“We showed them what a dog can do,” he said.
“K9s For Warriors is all about second chances,” said Christel Fleming, K9s For Warriors K9 training manager. “It’s a second chance for the shelter dogs themselves. It’s about second chances for the Warriors to return to lives of dignity and independence. Now, we’re giving inmates second chances to do something good for society while learning a new skill.”
K9 Coordinator Lisa Harrell said the impact on the inmate handlers was immeasurable.
“It’s just incredible to see the transformation in the guys — how they come in so closed off, and by the time they’re finished, they’ve grown tremendously and opened up so much,” she said.
We showed them what a dog can do," said Malique Pye, K9 trainer.
A Dog Doesn't Judge
For one inmate, the Paws For Change program proved to be a catalyst for something much bigger.
“I had one gentleman who at the start of the program was very interested, but he was withdrawn and lacking in confidence,” said Harrell.
She said just a few short days with his Service-Dog-in-training made a world of difference.
“He told me the reason why he felt so comfortable was that the dog didn’t judge him,” Harrell remembered. “The dog didn’t ask him why he was in jail or what he had been arrested for. He felt loved and accepted for the first time in a long time, and that came from the dog.”
He even started to see parts of himself reflected in his K9 counterpart.
“He knew his dog was capable, because he could see the dog picked up learning quickly,” Harrell said. “It made him realize that he was capable too. That made him start to believe in himself.”
The Nitty Gritty
Prior to the program’s inception, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office coordinated with the K9FW team to fully immerse themselves in the training and positive reinforcement practices of K9s For Warriors in order to recreate the program at the Montgomery Correctional Center. Through constant communication, a firm foundational plan and procedures were created.
While there are a variety of vocational and educational programs available to inmates at the correctional center, Paws For Change was an extremely popular choice — there were nearly 75 interested applicants.
K9 Coordinator Harrell screened each and every applicant, eliminating those with history of violent crimes or fleeing. She also sifted through conduct logs, detailing behavior while incarcerated.
From that pool of applicants, she conducted interviews and made selections, placing qualified inmates on a waitlist for future Paws For Change classes.
The 12-week-long program is intense and rigorous, requiring participants to care for their dogs 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
A typical day for an inmate handler and their K9 begins around 6:30 a.m. when they wake up to relieve and feed their dogs. After, they may spend an hour in a classroom setting before heading outdoors for hands-on learning and training. The program integrates weekly visits from K9s For Warriors trainers to provide feedback and assistance to inmates.
Making an Impact
The Paws For Change program is instrumental in expediting the meticulous training process that otherwise takes months to accomplish with K9s For Warriors trainers.
“They’re able to do it a lot quicker than we are,” said Fleming, manager of K9 training at K9s For Warriors. “Because we have assigned two inmates per dog.”
K9s For Warriors trainers are unable to spend 24 hours each day with their dogs, while the Paws For Change program allocates two inmate handlers for each dog, ensuring constant attention and enrichment, inevitably accelerating the training process.
Paws For Change has proven to be mutually beneficial, aiding K9s For Warriors’ efforts to train Service Dogs efficiently while also providing inmates with tangible and useful life skills applicable upon release.
Once they’ve proven proficiency, handlers are ready to hit the ground running with their Service-Dogs-in-training, equipped with extremely specific manuals and shaping plans, detailing expectations and step-by-step instructions to reach intended K9 training behaviors.
“We want the inmate to spend some time getting to know what that dog likes,” said Fleming. “Does that dog like crunchy treats versus soft treats? Does he like getting scratched on the butt versus behind the ears. What does he not like?”
For Service Dogs, exposure training is extremely important in preparation for life ahead with their veteran partners.
We want the inmate to spend some time getting to know what the dog likes. Does that dog like crunchy treats? Does he like getting scratched behind the ears?
A Whole New World
Montgomery Correction Center even offers variables and environments unavailable to trainers on the K9s For Warriors campus.
“Their practice firing range is not too far away, so the dogs are being exposed to gun fire and small explosions constantly,” said Fleming. “They also have a farm close by, so they get to see horses, pigs and goats — something we don’t have here.”
The Service-Dogs-in-training aren’t the only ones opened to new experiences and opportunities. Paws For Change exposes the inmate handlers to career paths and futures they may not have otherwise thought about before participating in the program.
“We showed them what a dog can do,” said Pye, K9s For Warriors trainer. “I don’t know if any of those guys would have considered training before this. We literally just gave them a second chance — the potential to do something different.”
He said he was amazed at the quick learning and coachable attitudes of the gentlemen.
“They took it all very seriously,” he said. “They would not take criticism to heart. They didn’t let egos get in their way, and they put everything personal aside to work with the dogs.”
Harrell echoed this sentiment.
“Many realize how important this training is for the dog, so they will sacrifice their own feelings — maybe work with someone they wouldn’t normally work with — for the sake of the dog,” Harrell said.
Many of the program’s participants developed strong relationships with their dogs and fellow inmates.
K9 Coordinator Harrell said she saw incredible growth and development within the younger inmates, even learning from their elder counterparts.
“I have seen some of the older gentlemen really become positive role models for some of the younger guys in the program,” said Harrell. “I’ve had men as young as 19 in the program, and that’s a very impressionable age.”
The inmates developed friendships with the K9s For Warriors trainers as well.
“I think people overlook inmates,” Pye, K9s For Warriors trainer, said. “I don’t like calling them prisoners or inmates. That’s why I wanted to know their names and build those relationships with them to let them know they aren’t just inmates.”
“I am somebody from the outside, but I am going to respect you and speak with you the same way I would with anyone else,” Pye said.
The positive impact of the Paws For Change program has reached much further than those directly involved. The training program has proved monumental in shortening K9s For Warriors’ five-year waitlist of veterans anticipating a Service Dog.
For the inmate handlers, it was a chance to make a life-saving impact.
“It gave him a sense of purpose, and he also felt pride knowing that he was doing something for a veteran,” said Harrell.
Program expansion plans are currently in development, and K9s For Warriors hopes to spread Paws For Change state-wide.
“It’s a win-win,” said Harrell. “I want to get more dogs through to help more veterans, and I want this program to continue to change the lives of these men.”