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The Origin of Brigadoon Service Dogs’ Prison Program - By Alli Engelke (2020)

Brigadoon is different from a lot of the other organizations out there that are breeding and training service dogs. What makes Brigadoon unique is that it gets its labor force from local prisons. Brigadoon service dogs are trained by prison inmates. For decades now, prison programs have been used to produce successful service dogs to their communities. What’s great about prison dog training programs is that they often make a significant difference in the lives of the inmate trainers.

It was a Dominican nun, Sister Pauline Quinn, who first came up with the idea of using dog training programs in prisons. Sister Pauline had a rough upbringing before she decided to dedicate her life to service. She grew up in an abusive household, and eventually she ran away. As a young teen, she was living on the streets of L.A. Not long after, she was picked up by the authorities. Unable to return home, she was placed into a series of institutions. When she was finally released as an adult, she went right back to living on the streets.

Things only started to turn around after Sister Pauline met Joni. Joni was a stray German Shepherd, and the sister adopted her to be her companion animal. The two formed a powerful bond. From their union, a new and beautiful movement began, for it was Joni who inspired Sister Pauline to start the first prison dog training program. In 1981, she formed the Prison Pet Partnership at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor, WA.

The program was designed at first simply to allow inmates to work with rescue animals and benefit from being around them. Later it grew to include the training of service animals for those in need. The Prison Pet Partnership continues to thrive today. Since its inception, it has placed over 700 dogs into new homes.

Brigadoon uses a similar model in prisons throughout the Northwest. In 2011 the Cedar Creek Correction Center approached Brigadoon hoping to initiate a dog training program in their facility. There were mountains of documents to be signed, site visits to be performed, and talks to be had. But in 2012, it was finally happening. Brigadoon had their first Prison Dog Training program.

Today Brigadoon works with at least four different correctional centers in the northwest— having added the Stafford Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen, the Washington Correction Center in Shelton, and the Coyote Ridge Correction Center in Connell.

Not just any inmate can become a trainer in one of Brigadoon’s programs. The selection process is rigorous. The entire process is supervised by qualified counselors. The inmates’ behavioral background is taken very seriously. It is important for them to have good conduct and a nonviolent record. The applicants also must have genuine interest in working with the dogs. They do not have to have prior experience, but if they do, it helps.

What is really important is that they have the desire to do something good, and the training program inspires that in a lot of ways. Often inmates join the program only to be around animals, but in the long run they come to know the reward of helping veterans and others who are receiving the dogs.

Before entering the program, the dogs have already been taught basic skills like “sit” and “lie down.” Their inmate trainers teach them more advanced commands like opening cabinets, turning on lights, and retrieving items for their future owners.

The inmates find purpose and pride in the work that they do, and they are always striving to improve, often asking Denise, the program’s director for more training videos and literature. One inmate, Scot, has even gone the extra mile to create beautiful wooden boxes that he donates to Brigadoon’s auction to help raise money to continue the prison program. Family members get involved too, donating toys and treats to the cause.

Brigadoon’s director, Denise, could not be more pleased with the results of the program. She reports that those who are already working as trainers are very loyal and that those who are applying treat it as a coveted position. This is a chance for people who might otherwise feel hopeless to have hope again. They are given real responsibility and can learn job skills which could benefit them after their time is served.

Inmates are encouraged to use positive reinforcement and can see the benefits that lie therein. It is an opportunity to step outside of their own fears and anxiety and build a relationship based on love and trust. One inmate trainer expressed that the program gave him a chance to feel human again. It seems to be a recurring theme that Brigadoon’s program, following in the footsteps of earlier prison dog training programs, improves inmates’ self-image as well as their personal relationships with others.

Brigadoon’s prison dog training programs are beneficial to a great many people, but as with all things in life, there is always room for improvement. As more funding and opportunities become available, Brigadoon hopes to expand to more facilities throughout the northwest. With the proper backing, Brigadoon could start a new satellite program in Seattle, Tacoma, or possibly Eastern Washington. The need for service dogs is so great that it far outweighs Brigadoon’s current ability to produce successfully trained animals. The great news is they have found a formula that works.

Creating dog training programs in prisons and empowering inmates to work as trainers is a method that has had great success over the years. With more community involvement and the support of financial donations, it seems the sky’s the limit for what these prison dog training programs can do.

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