All across the country, dog training programs are beginning to spring up at prisons and correctional facilities as initiatives designed to rehabilitate both at-risk dogs and low-risk inmates alike. These programs not only alleviate some of the burden carried by crowded shelters, but provide devoted, consistent training that makes dogs more desirable for adoption. In return, handlers can develop new skills, find a sense of purpose and experience an uplifting, comforting improvement to their mental health.
Launched in September of 2022 after several years of planning, the Project Homebound Dog Training Program is a new partnership between Athens-Clarke County Animal Services, the Athens-Clarke County Department of Corrections and nonprofit Athenspets. Dogs from the animal shelter are brought to the prison, where they live in a specialized enclosure of indoor/outdoor, climate-controlled kennels with a total of 10 runs. There, they are socialized and trained by incarcerated individuals under the supervision of Tricia Hall of Bone-A-Fide Dog Training.
Prior to getting Project Homebound off the ground, Hall served as a trainer with a similar program called Operation Second Chance Jail Dogs at the Gwinnett County Jail from 2010–2019. The program was featured on the season finale of the TV series “Pit Bulls & Parolees” on Animal Planet, and was also the subject of a documentary by Shanté Paige called Jail Dogs that aired on NBC. Since its founding, Jail Dogs has saved the lives of over 1,300 dogs.
“Project Homebound is just getting started, but the similarities are the same,” says Hall. “There is unconditional love from the dogs, making the guys feel important, and the guys are taught skills and purpose that will give them a second chance once released.”
Training programs such as Project Homebound can have profound impacts on inmates. Canine companionship and the joy of receiving unconditional love can improve mental health and create a sense of purpose during what may otherwise feel like a very isolating time living away from family, friends and loved ones. These programs can lead to a decrease in incidence of behavioral issues, as well as a reduction in the recidivism rate. Participants can apply skills such as communication, self-discipline and empathy towards future employment opportunities as they transition back into larger society.
“The handlers learn how to train and care for dogs, but I told them the most profound thing they will learn in this program is something about themselves,” says Hall. “They learn they are important, and they do matter. We are all a part of a team, and some of these guys never had that camaraderie or feeling of belonging. When a dog gets adopted, they see the results of their efforts, and it’s bittersweet but so rewarding. We have received pictures from the adopters of our dogs in their new homes, and it brings a sense of pride and smiles all around.”
Before participating in Project Homebound, each dog is carefully evaluated by Hall, who looks for friendliness towards people and other dogs, as well as general intelligence and an eagerness to learn. Throughout the program, dogs receive positive reinforcement obedience training and focus on refining their manners. Hall says that they often play games like Red Light Green Light, calling out cues like “sit,” “down” and “stay.” On rainy days, the dogs might play Treasure Hunt, a mental enrichment activity where they search for treats hidden around the covered outdoor pen. Dogs typically become fully trained within eight weeks, but remain at the facility until they are adopted.
“To think these dogs originally started in a shelter, lost and unwanted, then end up in this program, it’s a beautiful transformation to see,” says Hall. “The dogs thrive on learning and all the love and attention they receive. They get human companionship for countless hours throughout the day, and this makes for them being well-rounded, adoptable dogs. The more dogs we train and get adopted, the more dogs we can save.”
So far, a total of 15 dogs have participated in the program, with five successfully finding their forever homes. All Project Homebound dogs receive microchipping, deworming and vaccinations for DHPP, rabies and bordetella; are spayed or neutered if necessary; and have tested negative or been treated for heartworms—making their $150 adoption fee a pretty great deal. Available dogs are listed on the ACCAS website, accgov.com/9482/Dogs, where applications can be filled out to schedule a meet-and-greet.
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