RANCHO SANTA FE — Tender Loving Canine Assistance Dogs (TLCAD) has established a supportive partnership with Mule Creek State Prison for its inmate dog training program. TLCAD recently received a $202,131 grant from the State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that recognized TLCAD’s efforts and awarded the nonprofit with an Innovative Programs Grant.
“The prison inmate trainer programs have shown to reduce recidivism and one of our inmate trainers was recently released after over 20 years of incarceration and was able to obtain employment, stating it was largely based on his experience training service dogs by his employer,” said Rancho Santa Fe resident Karen Shultz, who also serves as president for TLCAD. “I feel the positive reinforcement training will rehabilitate most behavioral issues and make the prisoner a better neighbor when released.”
Mule Creek State Prison is based in Ione, Calif.
Qualified inmates will be selected to take part in service dog training. The goal is to place the animals with those who have autism and military veterans who have PTSD, mobility challenges and/or traumatic brain injury.
TLCAD’s program, POOCH, an acronym which stands for Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles and Creating Hope, has garnered attention.
“Our dogs are able to be trained quicker and at less cost by the POOCH program, placing more service dogs in San Diego County for wounded warriors and individuals on the autism spectrum,” Shultz said.
According to Victoria Cavaliere, Programs Director at TLCAD, their POOCH program launched in 2014 at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
“The POOCH program is designed to meet the increasing demands for service dogs while providing inmates an opportunity for education, rehabilitation and community improvement. TLCAD also received a grant from the Rancho Santa Fe Women’s Fund on May 18 and those funds are designated for hiring an additional training instructor to expand the current POOCH program in San Diego.”
Monies received by the Rancho Santa Fe Women’s Fund totaled $21,190.
Cavaliere pointed out that their POOCH program is designed to place six dogs in each prison for the first implementation year. She also noted that some of the animals may be puppies. Two inmates are assigned to one dog.
“After the first year, the number of puppies/dogs placed in the prison is limited only by the number of inmate applicants who meet the program qualifications to participate. The service dog industry claims that only 25 to 30 percent of dogs trained actually graduate as service dogs,” she said. She continued, “But prison trained service dogs have a much higher percentage — TLCAD’s POOCH program at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility had a 75 percent placement rate during the initial program trial.”
And the dogs in training reside with the inmates in their cell so the interaction is ongoing.
To ensure a seamless training process, twice a week, the inmates meet with TLCAD instructors.
Cavaliere pointed out that the instructors guide the inmates in utilizing a curriculum that underscores positive reinforcement dog training techniques. Training a service dog can vary between six to 18 months depending on the age of the dog as well as the tasks they are trained to perform.
“Instructors also meet with community volunteers who take dogs out of the prison weekly for community exposure,” she said. Cavaliere added, “The program was developed based on best practice standards in the industry and adheres to Assistance Dogs International (ADI) standards.”
While some dogs are used via an ADI breeding cooperative, Cavaliere shared, their nonprofit also teams up with local shelters and rescue organizations for potential canine candidates in their Rescue Acquisition Protocol. If for any reason the dogs are unable to meet the standards during the course of their training, they are placed in forever pet homes.
The POOCH program enhances one life at a time.
“In teaching positive reinforcement and providing a skill to incarcerated individuals, TLCAD is able to more successfully fulfill its mission to transform lives through service dogs,” Cavaliere said.