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Inmates, pets teach each other about life and love

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By LPR Staff
Editor/POST-REGISTER

Sounds of laughter and barking echoed through the air. Gentle commands like “Sit!” and “Stay!” were punctuated by the sounds of claws clicking on the pavement. If I closed my eyes, I could have been in any dog park in Central Texas.

When I opened my eyes, though, I realized that I couldn’t have been farther a

way from sunshine and grass, laughing dog owners and their playful pets. In fact, it was rehearsal day at the Geo Group, Inc.’s Lockhart prison facility. Nearly 30 inmates and their dogs were preparing for the winter graduation of the Paws in Prison program, which pairs inmates with orphaned, adoptable dogs for training – both for the inmates and their four-legged friends.

“Including this bunch, we’ve graduated 69 dogs from the program,” said Geo’s program coordinator, Machelle Gaconnet. “Most of those dogs have found great ‘forever families,’ and the inmates have been very successful.”

Non-violent inmates with limited discipline records are allowed to participate in the Paws In Prison program, which allows them to live side-by-side for two to three months with a dog, care for their pet, train them and discipline them. The dogs come from area shelters and often, have pasts similar to their handlers.

“When this amazing dog got here, she was broken, scared, drugged up from surgery, malnourished and alone in the world,” said Cara, who has been involved in the program since its inception and has handled a total of nine dogs through Paws in Prison. “However, her life was meant for much more. When I came to prison, I was broken, scared, drugged up from the life I chose to live, malnourished in body and spirit and probably closer to death than I am willing to admit. However, my life was also meant for so much more.”

Cara’s last dog, Darcy, is now a healthy, playful and patient dog, who Cara says never puts paws on the furniture and walks calmly on a leash. Cara, on the other hand, considers herself a whole and healthy person, who is scheduled for release from prison any day.

“I’m a figment of your imagination,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not really here.”

Like her counterparts in the program, Cara’s cell looks much a small dormitory room, but is dominated by the large crate where Darcy lives.

“The first night, she laid on the floor for 12 hours, while we slept in the crate to show her that it was safe and okay,” she said.

Gaconnet said Darcy’s condition upon her arrival in the program was not uncommon, but is an emotional state often used as a common thread between the inmates and their pets.

“When the dogs come here, often they’ve been abused or neglected, and they have trouble adjusting,” she said. “And a lot of times they are scared and confused, and I try to remind the inmates of how they felt when they first got here. I think it helps them to bond.”

She added in assigning inmates and their dogs, Gaconnet and the volunteer trainers take into account the dogs’ personalities, and try to match them with compatible inmates.

“If we have a shy dog, like Lola, who was scared of everything, we try to put them with a quiet inmate,” she said. “But then we have dogs like Wally and Darcy who are more high-spirited, and we put them with more energetic participants.”

After being paired with their pets, the inmates learn basic dog handling and teach the dogs basic discipline, later moving forward to the fun of tricks and presentations.

Wally will put his forepaws on the wall and stand still for a pat search.

After performing her tricks, Jackie is happy to take a bow.

And Darcy… When Cara says “bang, bang,” Darcy lies on her side and plays dead.

Each trick brings whoops and hollers of praise and congratulation from the other women in the program.

The Paws In Prison training program runs in two- to three-month intervals, after which the dogs are available for adoption. For more information, visit www.pawsinprison.com.

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