On the ground floor of the Forsyth County Jail there is now a cell block with some unusual occupants: four inmates and four dogs living, working and training together, preparing for life back out in the real world — a chance at a fresh start from whatever their human and canine lives previously held.
The four men are inmates of the jail, the four dogs are rescues from the Forsyth County Animal Shelter, and together they are piloting a new program with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office called “Pups with Purpose,” which aims to rescue and train local dogs that will be adopted into the community, while giving marketable skills to non-violent inmates to use once they are released from jail.
As the program has gotten up and running over the last five weeks, the sheriff’s office has already seen incredible progress from both the dogs and the inmate trainers, according to 1st Lt. Thomas Moore, who supervises the program.
Moore said that in that time, they have already started to see the dogs becoming happier and more obedient, while the inmates are showing a readiness to handle the responsibility of working with an animal six days a week.
"[The dogs] were all wild, doing their own thing. They didn't know what sit meant, they weren't housebroken,” Moore said on Monday morning, recalling how the four dogs were when they entered the program. “It’s like night and day.
"Not only is it night and day for the dogs, when I came in last week at one point in time, I realized by watching the way these guys work with the dogs and the way the dogs are responding to the training that everyone had turned a corner: the dogs had turned a corner, the pod workers had turned a corner and I just saw almost a professional-grade training going on.”
The “Pups with Purpose” program, according to Moore, will take “classes” of about four dogs from the animal shelter and pair them with a vetted inmate worker that will live with the dog day and night, providing several months of obedience training so that the animal can be adopted out to members of the community.
The right reasons
To participate in the program, inmates in the jail must apply and go through a strict interview process to make sure that their behavior, temperament and history is ideal for animal training and companionship, Moore said.
"I'm not going to let any violent criminals come in this program, because I don't want anything to happen to these dogs," he said. "I want to choose the ones that are going to be able to, number one, love animals, [and] number two, they want to be in the program for the right reasons."
Training in the program is headed by Scot Rucker of Rucker Dog Training in north Forsyth, who has volunteered to help train the inmates and dogs on a weekly basis.
"[Rucker has] trained with the jailers, so the jailers know how to train the dogs and they know to keep an eye on the pod workers in the program, to make sure that they are following the training to the program that Rucker has devised for them,” Moore said. "On top of that, when [Rucker] comes here, once or twice a week, he works with the inmates on their training and how they are interacting with the dogs. Because when it comes to training on the dogs, 99% of the time, the problem is not the dog; the problem is the person working with the dog."
After the dog’s training is complete, they will be listed on an adoption website created by the sheriff’s office where people start the screening process to adopt one of the dogs, which Moore said will involve interviews, lessons at the jail and possibly home visits to make sure the dog is right for the family.
"We want to make sure that we give it our best chance to be a one-time fit," he said.
On Monday morning, the four inmates Jason Cowart, Jason Brewer, Stephen Lee Pirkle, James Burns, and their dogs Roxie, Darla, Axle and Cletus, respectively, were spread throughout the cell block working on basic obedience commands, like sit, come and stay.
When asked, all of the men were united in their appreciation of the program, stating that it has given them hope, comfort and purpose while they do time for their crimes.
"I love it, it's actually a great program," commented Brewer, who was one of the first inmates to be selected for the program. "The dogs need a home, it teaches us to train, so we're learning good skills training dogs."
Brewer said that even though he and the other inmates have rotated dogs several times over the last five weeks, so that each can have the chance to work with different dogs and experience training with a different dog’s personality, the inmates have bonded with their canine partners.
"This is my dog here, she’s my baby," he said about Darla, a short brown-and-tan dog. "She's come a long ways, and me and her, we understand each other."
Brewer said that beyond the training experience, the companionship between animal and human is invaluable for an inmate that might have stress or problems that can’t otherwise be solved within the four walls of a jail cell.
“If you’ve got something on your mind, you can play with the dog, clear your mind up … and it takes your mind off of stuff while you are locked up,” Brewer said.
After they get out
While the inmates were going through their morning training routine, Moore explained that the willingness to learn, responsibility and compassion displayed by Brewer and his peers are exactly what they are looking for in their inmate trainers.
He said that they are looking for inmates that will get the most out of the program and are hoping that the program will become a quasi-rehabilitation program for select low-level offenders, providing them with new skills and a new purpose once they are released from jail.
"I want them to take a set of skills after they get out of here and go on to their next stage of life," he said. "That's going to benefit them on the outside world. They're learning responsibility, they're learning dependability, they are learning to see things through and that they can make a difference."
Pirkle, who on Monday was working with Axle, a friendly nine-month-old pit bull, said that in the past he has done other dog training programs, but this one has been the best in his opinion.
He said that the “quality time” they get to spend with Rucker, learning how exactly to train their dog, has driven the lessons home in a much more impactful way than what he has experienced in other programs.
“I think it’s great. I love animals," he said.
Like Moore’s explanation of the program’s long-term goals, Pirkle said that by taking responsibility for the dogs and learning how to train them, he hopes to prove something to himself and his family, to show that he can change his life in a positive way.
"I've been trying to change for a while, and to be able to come in here and do a program besides just time, it means a lot to me,” he said. “It shows my daughter that I can do more than just time."
Another inmate, Burns, who was working with Cletus, a floppy-eared German Shepherd puppy still growing into his paws and ears, said that like Pirkle, during the training he learned something about what he was capable of that he hadn’t seen before.
Burns said that the idea of having a new skill to leave jail with gives him hope for a better life.
"Giving us knowledge to build a foundation in life, start something different. That's a big step," he said. "It gives me hope, a lot of hope."
Once Roxie, Darla, Axle and Cletus reach the end of their training, Moore said that the sheriff’s office will hold a “graduation ceremony” so that the dog’s new owners can take them home and so that the sheriff’s office can introduce a new class of dogs to the program.
As the program continues, Moore said that the sheriff’s office has plans to expand the class of dogs and pool of inmate workers, to cycle between men and women inmate workers, and to select specific dogs for more specialized training to become therapy dogs for law enforcement, child victims, people with PTSD or other special needs.
"We've already got different needs in the county that we've spotted," Moore said.