Marley's Mutts Makes Pawsitive Change
It's a Dog's Life
When the Supervisory staff at CDCR California City came calling, Marley's Mutts was ready. Lisa Porter, our lead trainer and energy specialist, took the point position and worked tirelessly on assembling a training team, and the other components necessary for a successful program. Lisa, who also works at Cesar Millan's Dog Psychology Center, recruited Lia Marques, the interim Director at the DPC, as well as Kim Eriksson to join our team. With Lisa at the helm, we set out to create a curriculum, a list of essential supplies, requirements for entry, and a timeline for the Pawsitive Change Program.
The curriculum is a phenomenal guide to understanding energy and emotion-both human and canine. As well as how to process that energy and those emotions. The curriculum provides valuable vocational training but also allows and promotes spiritual betterment. Inmate selection was based on conduct while incarcerated and legitimate interest in the program. Inmates had to have zero, or very few, points accrued, and were required to fill out a survey and write an essay outlining why they were interested in the program. We did not discriminate against violent offenders, but did exclude sex offenders, and any with a history of animal abuse. Most of these men have been in prison for a long time, but ALL of them will get out, and some of them soon. This program is set up to establish compassion, develop skills and combat recidivism. All but the latter have been proven, and I believe time will verify reduced recidivism as well.
The goal of our program is to rehabilitate both man and canine, by putting them through a challenging block of course work that involves homework and weekly goals. The curriculum is designed to ready the men and dogs for the Canine Good Citizen test, passage of which is a universal symbol of obedience and upstanding behavior set forth by the American Kennel Club.
So, how do we get 26 inmates to become apprenticed master-trainers in just 14 weeks? First, by creating an atmosphere of respect. Second, we set our intention that the program would be a success; we never doubted ourselves or the inmates, because we had confidence in our ability as a team, and believed in the men. Third, we created a team atmosphere which was firm, fair and let go of fear-all of us. We were not afraid of the inmates and they were not afraid of us. Most inmates have not seen a dog in many years and some of their last experiences with a dog involved being apprehended by one. There were also preconceived, irrational fears about pit bulls, which we put to rest right off the bat by establishing trust. The inmates were therefore not afraid of the dogs and the dogs felt comfortable with the inmates. In fact, comfortable is an understatement.
By the end of our program, the dogs and men were companions, guardians and more. They loved one another and openly exchanged emotions which had been lying dormant in the men for years. The dogs also experienced an emotional exchange they were unaccustomed to. They had been abandoned in many cases and were gripped with fear and other issues. The men and dogs helped each other achieve a harmonious recent memory, which both, had forgotten. The men uniquely understood the gravity of it all and did not hesitate to let us know how much the program meant to them.
The crux of our program is on an intensive relationship between man and man, as well as dog and man-- centered on energy. First, in what is a very blatant move, the inmate-trainers must not congregate or organize along racial lines. Training teams are set up with diversity, mixing black with white and so on. As one inmate put it, "we normally don't mix with each other, but after this program, I can tell you that all of these men are my brothers and I'm very proud of them!"
Our central principle--energy-- is the key to rehabilitation and training. If these men are not honest with their emotions, they will not be able to control their energy and will fail as dog trainers. The men must, often for the first time in years or even decades, honestly identify what they are feeling: anxious, fearful, insecure, tired, lonely, hungry, etc. They must then learn to report how this feeling affects the dogs they're handling. Our dogs are mirrors of our soul. A dog's behavior or energy state is more often than not an accurate depiction of what its handler is experiencing emotionally. If a guardian or handler is anxious, unsure or hesitant, then the dog will exhibit similar energy directly related and proportional to the human. For instance, if an inmate is losing his patience and guides or corrects with anger, he will not be successful. However, if he chooses to identify what he is feeling and reset accordingly, he will succeed. Learning this valuable trait breeds calmness and confidence, and watching the men learn this was beautiful. The men have learned patience-with the dogs, with themselves, and with each other.
Correctional officers and inmates have told us that this program has entirely changed the vibe within the pod, yard and even the prison as a whole. We feel it when we walk down the halls, when we step out in to the yard and when we arrive into the pod. Something has most definitely changed for the better. The men and dogs are being rehabilitated; and each dog that participated has been adopted soon after the program's end. Both human and canine have found hope for a better life "on the outside". As one inmate put it "I have laughed more in the last 3 months then I have in the last 13 years I've been incarcerated".
We all deserve a second chance and with this program, these men are earning it- and saving some lives along the way. Maybe even their own!