Arkansas Paws in Prison — Second Chances Are Saving Lives for Inmates and Animals
Craig watched the yellow dog cower in the back of the cage day after day, as prospective adopters walked by, noticing the small dogs, the fluffy dogs, the dogs jumping on the gates begging for attention. Sandy, as his name tag said, wasn’t likely to beg for attention or food or anything else. He seemed fearful of all the noise and commotion of the shelter, and crouched in the corner with his face hidden.
Craig had seen him transform into a completely different dog when he’d taken him out of the cage for exercise. Sandy was smart and eager to please on these outings. Craig wished he could take him home, but he’d learned early on that he couldn’t bring home every animal that tugged at his heartstrings. But with Sandy’s shyness, he’d likely never get adopted.
An idea struck, and Craig approached the shelter manager. “I have a dog I’d like to recommend for the Paws in Prison program. He’s smart and eager, but with all the chaos in here he’s shy.”
“They’ve got an evaluation test that’s pretty strict. I’ll get you the details, and if he qualifies, we’ll call them.”
Over the next few days, Craig spent extra time getting Sandy out of the cage and working with him. When he was relaxed and comfortable, Sandy was an amazing dog, and he passed the evaluation with flying colors. If the prison program accepted him, his cage would be used to rescue another dog.
Trina stared at her hands and let her mind wander. At twenty-three, she’d become an expert at letting her mind take her away from her present circumstances. This prison counselor’s office was no different from the dirty room she’d shared with her last boyfriend, or the crowded group home, or even the dozen foster homes before that, just something to escape from. She couldn’t answer the counselor’s question if she’d wanted to. When was the last time you felt happy without being high? What was wrong with her that the answer was never?
Later that evening, Trina lay on her bunk pretending to be asleep when her cellmate Molly came in smiling and jabbering about dogs. Molly had been accepted into the Paws in Prison program and would work training stray dogs every day, after her regular job in the laundry. Trina couldn’t imagine volunteering to do more work after the long hot hours in the laundry, especially for free, but Molly was beside herself. “I had a German Shepherd when I was a kid. He was the greatest dog.”
Trina studied Molly, unable to imagine a childhood any more different from her own. “One of my mom’s boyfriends had two dogs when we lived with him for a while. He chained one outside each door, to warn him in case the cops showed up. They were so mean they’d even bite him if he got too close. Yeah, dogs are great.”
“Trina, you’re not scared of dogs, are you? When I get my assignment, the dog will live here in the cell with me. Are you okay with that?”
“I ain’t scared. It better not bite me, though, or I’m kicking your skinny butt.” She laughed before turning to stare at the wall, ending the conversation.
Molly bounced into the cell the following afternoon with a large yellow dog on a leash. “This is Sandy. They said he’s really smart. I hope y’all get along.”
The dog wagged his tail at Trina. She eyed the dog. “Nice doggie. Stay over there.”
Despite Molly’s urging, Trina kept her distance while keeping a wary eye on the dog. Molly put a foam dog bed on the floor beside her bunk and urged Sandy to sit. Sandy looked around but stayed put on his dog bed. Their first night as roommates passed quietly.
A few nights later, Trina awoke from a nightmare that left her shaking and disoriented. She turned to find a furry face inches from her own. It took a moment to recognize Sandy, who had crossed the room and stood beside her bed. Trina caught her breath and the big dog licked her face. Trina reached her hand out and stroked Sandy’s head.
That was all the encouragement the animal needed. He climbed into the bunk with Trina and she wrapped her arms around him. She sobbed into his fur until they both drifted off to sleep.
From that moment, Trina became determined to be a part of the Paws in Prison program. The current semester was closed, so she asked to apply for the next term.
The warden was not encouraging. “Trina, this program is for inmates who have good behavior and excellent attitudes. Inmates who take part in the counseling sessions instead of stare into space and refuse to speak. Inmates who want to better their own lives as well as the lives of these animals.”
“Just tell me what I need to do. I’m serious. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
After meeting with the counselor, Trina received a list of requirements she’d need to meet before she could be considered for the program. With only four months until the next session, she threw herself into the task with a passion she’d not displayed before.
The first order of business was getting her high-school equivalency certificate. School hadn’t been a priority for her in the past, but now she found the lessons interesting, and passed the exam on the first try. That boost to her esteem motivated her, and she became a frequent visitor to the library, where she read everything available about dogs, their health, behavior and training.
During this time, Sandy was progressing in his lessons, and spent each night in the cell with Molly and Trina. At first Molly seemed jealous of the attention Sandy gave Trina, but as Trina came out of her shell Molly understood what Sandy had sensed all along. Sandy gave love and acceptance where it was needed most.
When Sandy’s graduation day came, Trina asked to write a note to Sandy’s prospective adopters.
She wrote simply, “Sandy is an angel in the body of a dog. He sensed a wounded and frightened soul and offered unconditional love to help it heal. Please take good care of this special dog.”
Trina completed all her requirements before the deadline and wrote a letter to the program directors. It read in part, “Even if I’m never selected to be a part of the program, Paws in Prison saved my life. Because of a dog, I know what it feels like to receive love and acceptance. I vow to make something of my life in the future so I can share a good life with a dog like Sandy. Thank you for this program.”
Trina spent the last two-and-a-half years of her sentence working as a trainer in the Paws in Prison program. After her parole, she found work as a veterinarian’s assistant, and volunteered at a local shelter. She still tells everyone she meets about a dog named Sandy and a program that saved her life.
This story is fiction, but the Paws in Prison program is a very real program that saves and changes lives for inmates and dogs in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. For more information on the program, or to find an adoptable dog, visit their website.