Downeast Dog News

Prison Dog Training Programs Help Rescue Dogs

By Susan Spisak | Jun 01, 2017
Faye from Paws and Stripes

Dog Training Programs Bring Joy to Prisons

By Susan Spisak


Two of Maine’s animal non-profits, the Animal Welfare Society of Kennebunk and Pope Memorial Humane Society of Knox County, have heartwarming prison dog training programs.


The Animal Welfare Society’s (AWS) program is called Paws in Stripes, and it’s led by Karen Robinson with the help of Kim VanSickle. They’ve partnered with Maine Correctional Center (MCC) in Windham and utilize inmates as handlers to train puppies in basic obedience skills.

Pope Memorial Humane Society of Knox County’s (PMHSKC) program is K-9 Corrections. Dog trainer Marie Finnegan, owner of K-9 Solutions Dog Training, Inc., heads the program that began in 2006 at Bolduc Correctional Facility. They moved to the Maine State Prison in Warren at their request a few years ago. Its mission is to pair dogs that need additional schooling with at-risk inmate handlers, teaching positive life skills to both.

I talked to Abigail Smith and Karen Robinson about Paws in Stripes and Marie Finnegan of K-9 Corrections to get an in-depth look at their programs, and how they not only affect the handlers and other inmates, but the dogs as well.

Paws in Stripes

The puppies trained at MCC come to AWS through their Paws Across America program. This exceptional program brings in adoptable companion pets--including puppies--from overcrowded shelters, even rescue groups, that need help placing their animals. This program saves many healthy pets’ lives--because a shelter with an overcrowded situation may be forced to euthanize animals.

When Paws Across America puppies arrive at AWS, they’re first deemed healthy before going to the MCC handlers who are waiting excitedly for their charges. AWS’ Executive Director Abigail Smith admitted that this civic minded program is really about the wonderful impact the pups have on the jail residents--because their puppies get adopted quickly regardless, but she said it’s great that they can offer the pets to the community with basic obedience skills.

Abigail added that Paws in Stripes is really Karen Robinson’s “baby.” She’s AWS’ Animal Care and Behavior Coordinator, and runs the program in conjunction with Kim VanSickle, their Lead Obedience Trainer.

Karen said that since 2011 about 350 puppies have gone through this program. About 8 to 10 pups are trained at a time, for a duration of 6 weeks per term, by both male and female handlers and their helpers (helper’s dog-sit when the handler is unavailable for a variety of reasons).

The handlers are selected by MCC officials based on excellent behavior and a willingness to learn. The pup resides in their cells and crate training and housebreaking begin immediately. They also have play time in the yard with the other pups for socialization and have an opportunity to greet humans, too.

Handlers provide three training sessions daily, and Karen or Kim hold weekly classes. “The handlers really know what they are doing, so the class is more for questions and fun and so we can see how the puppies are doing,” Karen shared. She added that usually within a week the pups are reacting to the “sit” and “lay” commands.

Karen has had positive feedback from the Paws in Stripes participants, so she asked a few to write out their feelings on the program.

One handler wrote that he was never complimented much in life, but when one of his puppies gets complimented, it makes him feel good.

Another added that having that pup around provides light at the end of the tunnel. “No matter how angry, sad, or lonely I can get. As soon as I step in the cell with my dog, all of the days gloom and negativity get washed away after a few moments of wrestling or playing with the dog.”

A third handler wrote this, “My biggest worry is that they go to a good home. I get so attached and invested I hate to see them go, but the thought of them getting a good home helps a lot.”

The puppies have a positive impact on everyone. Another handler explained, “Not only has the program been beneficial and enjoyable to me, but it’s clear to see the joy it brings to the rest of the facility as well.”

Karen added her perspective. “I think it is heartwarming to see a big burly tattoo-covered man sweet talk and oogle over a puppy. It brings them such joy to show us everything that they have taught them. It is a big responsibility to care for a puppy, and they welcome them with open arms, and they seem to love every minute of it.”


K-9 Corrections


For dogs that need personality or behavioral tweaking, PMHSKC’s K-9 Corrections affords them the opportunity to become well-mannered and well-trained, thus increasing their adoptability. Trainer Marie Finnegan relays positive training tools to the screened and selected inmate handlers. She said over 100 dogs have gone through the program, and they’ve run the gamut in breeds, sizes, and behavioral issues.

Each dog has a team of handlers. There’s a primary and secondary, sometimes even a third. Marie explained that handlers may need team members to care for their dogs while they’re at their jobs. K-9 Corrections also utilize crates for the dogs, and they rotate living with the two or three handlers in their cells.

Training duration varies according to the dog’s needs. Marie said, in addition to crate training, they’re schooled on basic obedience and leash walking skills. The handlers also teach their dogs to ring a bell when they need to go outdoors, a neat tool that can be used once they’re adopted, and they teach a lot of tricks, not just for the dog’s mental stimulation, either.

“Tricks help dogs get adopted quickly…People think [the dog is] brilliant when it does a trick,” explained Marie.

The K-9 Corrections dogs affect their handlers positively. “It teaches empathy…it makes them more human,” said Marie. She added that if you look at the K-9 Corrections Facebook pictures, there’s apparent differences. Those that appear stiff are most likely newer handlers. The faces with the big smiles have had their dogs for a while and are more relaxed. The canines have worked their way into their handler’s hearts.

While the training process benefits the dogs, increasing their adoptability, it soothes other inmates and the overall prison environment. Marie explained that the inmates may be rowdy even when they’re in their cells, but if there’s a dog in the outer area, the animal can calm and quiet them. Many will look out, interested in watching the dog.

She also recounted the story of Chip, a happy black Lab that was one of the first through their program. The jovial, bouncy dog often went to the mental health unit during his training to cheer those inmates, and Marie was along on one such visit.

They approached a gentleman with badly scarred arms, and Chip’s demeanor immediately changed. He gently crawled into the man’s lap as if to give him a big hug. Marie served in the Marine Corps, a tougher sort, and isn’t known as a touchy-feely kind of gal, but that moment touched her so, she admitted she had to keep her tears in check.

“It really spoke to the power of dogs and how they can change, bond, and provide the comfort that even another person cannot do.”