The Arkansas Department of Correction Paws in Prison program is expanding from teaching its rescue dogs basic obedience skills to specialized service dog training, according to ADC public information officer Shea Wilson.

The Arkansas Department of Correction Paws in Prison program is expanding from teaching its rescue dogs basic obedience skills to specialized service dog training, according to ADC public information officer Shea Wilson.

Wilson spoke to the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club on Thursday and was accompanied by Jefferson County Humane Society volunteer Elaine Vaccaro and Mercy, an 8-month-old black Labrador mix with a talent for collecting loose clothing into a laundry basket.

“We could tell early on that Mercy has a lot of talent and we will use that to help people,” Vaccaro said as she led Mercy through several basic obedience commands.

“Tidy up,” Vaccaro said to Mercy as the dog began to collect clothing the trainer had scattered across the floor and then placed each item into a laundry basket.

“We are also training her to be able to bring items like medicine bottles to her owner and to open doors and turn light switches off and on. She even has a harness she uses to move the laundry basket.”

Wilson said that since the debut of the program in December 2011 a total of 235 dogs have graduated from the Paws in Prison program and have been adopted, with approximately 40 canines in the program at any one time.

“We now have the program in six of our correctional facilities,” Wilson said. “We are saving dogs and helping inmates. The dogs that are selected for this program were scheduled to be put down when they were rescued. Each dog is screened ahead of time to make sure that it has the right disposition to be trained and to be adopted. The basic obedience program is eight to 10 weeks and at the end each graduate knows basic obedience commands, is housebroken, and has been socialized with other dogs and with a wide variety of people.”

Wilson said the inmates benefit from the program as well.

“Each dog is assigned two inmate trainers who themselves must apply to be a part of the program,” Wilson said. “A professional trainer comes in once a week to work with the inmates and their dogs. Having dogs in prison has a positive effect on many of the inmates. We see inmates happier because of it. The dogs stay with their trainers 24 hours per day. Participation in the program also supports successful re-entry of the inmates back into society. We have had some who are able to use the skills they have learned to find jobs in the field once they are released.”

Wilson said dogs with special aptitudes are being trained for up to six months at a time to handle a number of different jobs.

“We have trained dogs to assist a child with autism and another child with cerebral palsy,” Wilson said. “A war veteran with post-traumatic stress syndrome will also be receiving a dog specially trained to assist him. Another dog has been trained to assist a college student who is confined to a wheelchair.

“We have a little Bichon Frise that is being trained for a woman with a medical condition,” Wilson said. “The dog is being trained to activate her Life Alert emergency button if a medical emergency occurs.”

Wilson said anyone interested in adopting a Paws in Prison graduate should visit the ADC website.

“People interested in adopting one of our dogs should find the Arkansas Department of Correction online and navigate to the Paws in Prison section,” Wilson said. “Applications are available online.”