A female inmate points her index finger at a tan-colored mutt and says, “Bang!” The dog pretends to drop dead and the audience cheers.
The dogs’s name is Cowboy and his trainer is Sarah Smith * who is halfway through serving an eight year sentence for falling asleep while driving, which resulted in a death. She hopes to be released in September for good behavior.
Smith and Cowboy are part of Paws in Prison at The Lockhart Work Facility, 30 miles south of Austin, Texas. The program pairs female inmates with shelter dogs, most of whom were considered likely candidates for euthanasia. Today the group is holding graduation ceremonies for nine dogs and their 18 handlers. They’re also celebrating the successful training of their 100th dog, a large, dignified-looking mutt named Handsome. All the dogs are outfitted in a red, white and blue jersey that says, “Mr. Independent” or “Ms. Independent.”
Only 24 of the 1,000 prisoners at The Lockhart facility are chosen to be dog trainers after going through a lengthy interview process. The women must complete a two-week dog training course before the animals arrive, and are expected to make the dog adoptable after eight weeks of being together 24 hours per day.
Hepzibah Hoffman-Rogers of Thunderpaws Canine Solutions teaches the inmates how to train dogs. “What I didn’t expect was how much enjoyment I would get out of helping these women,” she says.
The animals come from four rescue groups – Friends of Gonzalez Animal Shelter, Goliad Pet Adoption, Humane Society San Antonio, Guadalupe County Humane Society and Goliad Pet Adoption – who spay, neuter and provide veterinary care to the dogs before releasing them to the inmates.
“Prison is an environment that requires people to be tough and strong,” says Machelle Gaconnet who started Paws in Prison at the Lockhart facility five years ago. “This program has allowed the offenders to show they care about the animals. These relationships foster healthy interactions and behaviors with family, friends and community.”
Another inmate-trainer echoes Gaconnet’s words by saying, “This dog gives me a sense of self worth and a reason to rise each morning. She‘s taught me to trust.”
Smith has Cowboy put his paws against the wall so she can “pat him down”, police style. He then puts his paws together and “prays for a home”. After “pledging allegiance”, Cowboy gives Smith a high five and bows to the enthusiastic audience, 52 of whom are supporters of the San Antonio Humane Society (SAHS), which chartered a bus to the event.
Cowboy is Smith’s third dog to train during her prison stay. Prior to entering the program, he had been locked in a kennel and considered “too crazy” for anyone to adopt. “Working with Cowboy has showed me that old dogs can actually learn new tricks,” Smith said. “We can’t let our past determine our future success”.
To learn more, follow Paws in Prison on Facebook.
*Name has been changed.