Before he turned 23 years old Ryan Lambert had been convicted of driving while intoxicated four times. A series of continued run-ins with the law — traffic stops that revealed a revoked license and a misdemeanor battery charge — led to his five-month stay at Rock County Jail.
Duke, a stray dog found in Janesville, was nabbed by the Southern Wisconsin Humane Society a few weeks ago. He was lost, defensive and not considered safe around children.
A union between the Humane Society and the Rock County Sheriff’s Office joined the two wanderers. Two days in, the results are impressive.
“Not long ago, Duke had a lot more fight than flight in him,” said Brett Frazier, Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin executive director. “Now look at him.”
A clearly excited Duke galloped eagerly Tuesday morning behind the jail. In a joint press conference, Frazier and Rock County Sheriff Robert Spoden introduced the Canine Corrections Academy Program. What began as an e-mail from Frazier to Spoden last November will pair unruly dogs with inmates undergoing the Rock County Education and Criminal Addiction Program (RECAP).
“We believe people and animals both deserve second chances,” Spoden said. “Far too often inmates have never completed something positive before. This program gives them an opportunity to do that.”
Duke is believed to be about five years old and a mix of a few breeds. If his massive head is any indication, his veins carry some Mastiff blood. Inmates agreed on his name when he arrived Monday. After an application process, Lambert, a former pit bull owner, was selected as Duke’s primary handler.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Lambert said. “I was blessed with a really good dog. He brings a positive dynamic to the unit. People like having animals around.”
Lambert will train Duke under the guidance of the Humane Society and retired deputy sheriffs Don Miller and Matt Pyne, both of whom are experienced animal handlers. As many as four dogs are expected to undergo six-to-eight weeks of training by inmates before becoming available for adoption. Interested adopters will then be invited to the Sheriff’s Office where they will meet with the trainer and staff.
“People will be fully aware that they are adopting a dog trained in jail,” Spoden said, adding that the program will come at no cost to taxpayers.
Sgt. Jay Williams said Duke will live with the 28 inmates in the RECAP unit. Lambert will handle Duke during most of the day. A secondary handler will help occasionally and Duke will be locked in his crate only during meals and bedtime.
“It’s about giving inmates the tools they need to rehabilitate back into society,” Williams said.
Programs pairing unadoptable pets with criminals are not new. Lima State Hospital in Ohio became the first U.S. prison with animal therapy in 1975 when — this is not the movie Shawshank Redemption — an inmate adopted an injured sparrow. Staff noticed a positive change in inmate behavior and quickly approved the program.
Studies of the program noticed reductions in violence, suicide attempts and medication intake on floors with pets compared to those without. In the late 1990s, the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center worked with the Wisconsin Correctional Liberty Dog Program, the brainchild of Dominican nun Sister Pauline Quinn, to train service dogs for those with special needs.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Family Social Work said, “Programs like these may in fact be one of the only ways for inmates to feel like they can somehow redress the harms caused by their actions.”
Frazier said his branch handles more than 1,000 adopted pets a year. Still, the Humane Society, like the vast majority of animal shelters, euthanize unadoptable pets. Duke, for example, may have been deemed unadoptable due to his defensive temperament. Now, particularly challenging dogs will have a chance to be socialized and trained by young men who are also looking to reclaim a respectable reputation.
“This program will literally save lives,” Frazier said.
Handling the unusual position of star inmate, Lambert smiled for news cameras and hinted at the two-way nature of the program he will pilot.
“Duke might teach me more tricks than I teach him,” Lambert said.