Missouri Puppies for Parole program helps meet emotional needs of offenders, teaches valuable life lessons

Missouri Puppies for Parole program helps meet emotional needs of offenders, teaches valuable life lessonsThe Puppies for Parole (P4P) program through the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) provides an important service to local communities as well as helping cultivate an environment of compassion behind bars. The program, which has been in place since 2010, has effectively reduced the number of dogs that are living in shelters throughout the state and has helped prevent hundreds, if not thousands of healthy dogs from being euthanized. Through formal training, individualized study and on-the-job training, offenders who enroll to become trainers through the program earn a certificate in animal handling – recognized in all 50 states. There is even an advanced P4P program, in which dogs are trained as therapy dogs for children and adults with special needs.

An offender at Potosi Correctional Center (PCC) recently shared the many benefits they received through working as a trainer in the program:

My first memory of the P4P program is a newspaper article in which the director for MDOC stated the need for more compassion in prison, and that for that purpose, dogs would be beneficial. At first, I was skeptical that this program would come to fruition. Now, I am very glad to report that it has – and that it has definitely made life in prison more compassionate. Hurting people hurt people. This is a well-known principle. As a result of the presence and training of dogs, there are less hurting people here today.

I’ve been fortunate to be one of the trainers in the dog program here at Potosi Correctional Center (PCC) called EDNAS, which stands for “Every Dog Needs a Stay.” Not only have the dogs changed this place, but the individual dogs have also changed me. There is a proverb which states, “He who waters is himself watered.” My intention in being a dog trainer was not only to help the dogs have a good home and life, but also to help people have a good pet that would bring them much joy and healing. As I worked diligently toward this end, I found that even as the dogs were transforming themselves into obedient and loving pets, I was being changed as well – a true “who’s teaching who” moment.

The first dog I trained was a tiny deaf dog named April. Since she could not hear, I became very sensitive to how much I communicated through body language. Doing this made me especially aware of how I communicate negatively in this way. If this little deaf puppy was affected, then certainly people must be as well, so I began to focus more on encouraging and helping people simply by my body language – without ever saying a word.

Samson, Simba and Sierra were very scared puppies, as life had not been kind to them thus far. However, as a result of the P4P program, that was all about to change – in a big way. Once again, I found myself also being changed in the process. What struck me about these frightened little puppies was their complete willingness to forgive and regain their trust in people. They had come out of their shell to interact with the world which had hurt them so deeply and as a result of their extraordinary example, forgiveness became another of my focuses.

Then, there was Hope. Hope is something those in prison and the whole world need. Hope the dog embodied the characteristic of hope, and it was contagious to everyone she came in contact with. If you were sad, she helped make you feel happy just by watching her. If you were hurting, she made you forget about it, if only for the moment. Did I mention Hope is deaf and blind? She is a walking, or rather, a galloping life lesson. No matter how bad things are or what has happened to you in life, joy and abundance can still be yours. It all depends on your perspective. The choice is entirely up to you.

Finally, there was Faith, who like Hope, was blind and deaf, yet happy as can be. Faith was a 125-pound Great Dane – or as some call her, “the gentle giant.” The little puppies loved to play with her, nipping at her ankles. Thought she could easily have injured any one of them just by stepping on them, she was always so gentle with the puppies, which encouraged me to ponder my treatment of others who are perceived as vulnerable or weak in some way.

There is one additional and new way in which the P4P program is changing the lives of both puppies and people – by training service dogs for ComTrea, which stands for “community treatment.” These particular canines receive advanced training to perform tasks of service for special needs persons such as kids with autism or those who are deaf. People’s lives in some way will now literally depend on the dogs we train. As a result, the dogs are not only meeting the emotional needs of those who adopt them, but their physical needs as well. This type of training has caused me to focus more on the needs of the person for whom the dog is being trained.

By being part of this advanced training program, my personal life has a deeper sense of purpose in prison. Many prisoners are waiting to leave prison in order to have a purpose, but the P4P program has brought it right to our cells. Prisoners with a purpose of helping both puppies, as well as people – now that’s a powerful program.