Demetrius Route said there is only one thing that matters when it comes to training Zelda, an energetic 3-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix.
“It’s all about love with her,” he said. “You can tell she was probably abused or something. Something went wrong where she didn’t get a lot of love.”
But Route said that he underestimated how much energy caring for and teaching the dog would take.
“Her ears may go down or her tail may perk up. You don’t know if she’s got to use the bathroom or she’s hungry,” Route said. “You have to understand her body language, which took a lot of patience.”
But time is not an issue for the pair because Zelda is becoming a more family-friendly dog in a unique setting: prison.
“It’s a messed-up environment; I’m locked up, now she’s locked up,” he said. “At the same time, it’s growing for both of us. She’s in the position to where she can get the love and training she needs to go to a family, and I’m in the position to where I can learn some responsibility.”
Through a partnership with the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, Larch Correction Center has a new program that allows inmates to train dogs on family-friendly manners before they are adopted.
The dogs live and train with the inmates, who throughout the day teach the dogs to sit, lie down and walk obediently on a leash. The rest of the time, Route and other inmates take care of the dogs — they feed them and play with them. The dogs sleep in a kennel in their handlers’ room.
“It’s like a second chance for both the dog and the individual,” said Cheryl Leon Guerrero, classification counselor at Larch.
Leon Guerrero heard from staff that they were interested in starting a dog program and worked to make it a reality, though it took a while to iron out the details.
She came up with a screening process to keep out inmates convicted of crimes that included domestic violence, child abuse, senior abuse or animal neglect or cruelty. She and Humane Society staff interviewed the inmates to make sure they were getting involved for the right reasons.
But by the time Leon Guerrero saw the first round of inmates graduate with a dog trainer certificate and the first couple of dogs go on to be adopted, she saw that the program was worth it.
“I saw grown men moved to tears,” she said. “A lot of the guys they just need a companion. … They need an accomplishment.”
Tara Zimmerman, canine training and enrichment specialist at the Humane Society, makes the trip to the prison once a week to show the inmates how to train their pups on family-friendly dog manners.
“It was a learning experience for us. … I certainly have never been in a prison environment, ever,” she said.
Zimmerman said that while they’ve started out by bringing the inmates more people-friendly dogs, she plans to eventually bring them the dogs with more behavioral issues so that they can get the 24/7 training they need.
“It’s pretty much a win-win all the way around,” she said.
Shawn Schulze said that when he first got Trax, a rowdy 14-month-old mutt, he had a nipping problem. In the first week, they broke him of his bad habit.
“We did it through positive reinforcement,” he said. “He doesn’t nip at your feet or anything like that anymore.”
Schulze said that prison is a place where there is a lot of negativity, but that it is easier to avoid when you have a dog.
“You don’t focus on it. … Everybody who comes up is happy. You can’t have a bad day,” he said. “It’s nice to spend time with an animal every day because they don’t judge, there’s no opinions. They just want to be loved and have a good time.”
Darion Chambers, 25, spent some of his sentence in another prison where he already had experience training dogs. When he came to Larch, he became a mentor in the program. He said that training is more than just giving dogs treats when they do something right and withholding treats when they mess up.
“It’s more about being able to understand each and every dog as individuals and not looking at them as just an animal,” he said.
Chambers said that it’s not lost on him that the dogs they take care of may have led similar lives to the inmates who train them.
“They’re no different than us. We all just need to have patience with ourselves and understanding to get to our underlying issues, whatever it is,” he said. “You have individuals that want to amount to something. We’ve made mistakes in our past. Regardless, that doesn’t define us as individuals.”