Gia and Floyd are bonding. Every morning, Gia lets Floyd, a boxer pup, out of his cage, takes him out to the bathroom, feeds and trains him. Together, they attend a puppy obedience class twice a week. They sleep in the same room. Floyd learns to heed Gia’s commands. Gia benefits from the responsibility of having a pet.
It sounds like a typical human-canine connection, except for one thing: Gia is an inmate at Northeast Reintegration Center.
Gia was selected to participate in a program run by Pilot Dogs, Inc., a Columbus-based organization that trains dogs to become guides for the blind. Gia is training Floyd in partnership with a family that takes him every few weeks for socialization.
The experience promises to be illuminating for all involved. “At first I was afraid to go into the prison,” says Kristen Fragassi, whose family is fostering Floyd. “I thought it was going to be kind of sad. But there is lots of programming going on. The atmosphere is very collegial.”
Once a month, Fragassi takes Floyd out of the correctional facility and to her home, where he interacts with her husband, two teenage sons and two other dogs. “He needs to socialize, to get used to chaos and distractions,” she says.
Floyd, named for boxer Floyd Patterson, is a boxer breed, which is one favored by Pilot Dogs for its program. Boxers were bred for guarding, companionship and work, which makes them ideal as guide dogs. Other favorable breeds are golden retriever, Doberman pinscher, Labrador retriever, poodle and Vizsla.
Once Floyd’s training is complete, likely around 12 months, he will leave both Gia and the Fragassi family and work on formal training as a guide dog. Finally, he will be paired with his forever owner, and the two of them will have four weeks of training together.
The prison part of the dog training program has many advantages, not the least of which is helping an inmate take on a responsibility that will hopefully translate into successful transitioning upon release. Many dog training organizations take advantage of relationships with facilities like Northeast Reintegration Center, as well as with Grafton Correctional Institution and Lake Erie Correctional Institution. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction provides a list of facilities statewide that participate in service dog programs.
Selecting an inmate for a program is a painstaking process, according to Wendy Crann, co-founder and executive director of Working Animals Giving Service (W.A.G.S.) 4 Kids, which trains service dogs for children and has inmate dog training programs at correctional facilities in Grafton and Mansfield.
“Inmates are vetted by the prison,” she explains. “Anyone who, over the course of a year, has gotten a ‘ticket’—basically a demerit for going against the rules—will likely not be a candidate. We’re very diligent about starting with a pool of candidates that the prison thinks is a good group.”
Next, possible candidates for the program are interviewed by W.A.G.S. 4 Kids. “We don’t ask the typical questions,” Crann says. “We want to know your family history, the number of cellmate changes you’ve had, how you resolve conflict, the last thing that upset you, if you have a problem with female authority [most of W.A.G.S. 4 Kids volunteers who work with inmates are female]. We want to know if you have support from outside.”
Who’s a good candidate? “We look for someone with internal stillness, who can wait for a dog to perform a command,” Crann says. Being able to read and write is also a necessity. After being selected, an inmate is required to take a six-week study course before training begins, part of the accredited apprenticeship service dog training program offered by W.A.G.S. 4 Kids.
“You have to learn inflection, hand signals, voice control, Crann says. “We want the dogs to be joyful.”
Finally, the inmate meets the puppy he or she will be training. The dog arrives at about eight weeks and leaves between 15 and 22 months. W.A.G.S. 4 Kids trainers work with the inmate along the way. Just like the Pilot Dogs program, dogs being trained under W.A.G.S. 4 Kids leave the correctional facility every few weeks for social interaction. “They need to get the experience of hearing the doorbell ring and sleeping at the foot of a bed,” Crann says.
Perhaps the most heartwarming moment of all is when a family arrives to pick up the newly trained dog. “This inmate gets to look at a little kid and see the tears in the family’s eyes, and know they have done something life-changing,” Crann says. W.A.G.S. 4 Kids primarily trains dogs to comfort and calm children with autism and to help children with restricted mobility.
While inmate dog training programs typically run smoothly, incidents occasionally occur. Last fall, a German shepherd mix being trained at the Warren Correctional Institution died in a cell due to blunt force trauma. Joseph’s Legacy, the Middletown organization that paired with the Warren facility on the program, abruptly ended its inmate dog training program. “We have to make sure her [the dog’s] story is known,” Joseph’s Legacy posted on its Facebook page. “These programs are more risky than we had originally thought.” In January 2019, the inmate who had been assigned to the dog was indicted on charges stemming from the incident.
There are no statistics indicating that inmate dog training programs have a high rate of incidents like this. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has formed a committee to review these programs and create standardized policies to ensure appropriate care of dogs. In the meantime, training programs continue to vet inmates in the hopes they are placing their dogs in capable and caring hands.
How much do inmates gain from participating in a program like Pilot Dogs or W.A.G.S. 4 Kids? While Crann says there is no real research on this subject, inmate dog training programs do offer a rewarding experience. “Because we require good behavior [from inmates in the program], some of that gets integrated into their lives,” she shares. “Ultimately, I don’t think we change people. I think we give people an opportunity to change.”
Gia, the inmate working with Pilot Dogs, is in the middle of her training experience. Time will tell how she benefits once the program is finished. Fragassi, Floyd’s foster mom, believes that the training and fostering program offers something positive for everyone.
“It’s a good experience for the inmate,” Fragassi says. “It’s good for the dog. And it’s good for people like me. Now I have a new dog to love.”
Support the prison training program at W.A.G.S. 4 Kids by attending the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Throwdown from noon to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at Cleveland Public Auditorium. Mac and cheese prepared by 30 of Cleveland’s chefs and food trucks will be available. All proceeds benefit the prison training program. Registration and more information is available at macncheesethrowdown.com.