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Lending a Helping Paw: Service Dogs Common in Washington’s Prisons

September 22, 2021

By Rachel Friederich

Communications Office

Dog laying on floor in between two incarcerated individuals

Incarcerated Individuals at Stafford Creek Corrections Center’s Brigadoon Dogs program sit with Donner (center) a service dog trained for veterans with disabilities. (Photo Courtesy Sustainability in Prisons Project)

September is National Service Dog Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness and showing appreciation for the extraordinary work service animals perform every day. There are anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 registered service dogs in America, according to Service Dog Central. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are defined as dogs that perform assistance to an individual with a disability.

Service dogs are a common sight in Washington’s correctional facilities. Several prisons run programs in partnership with community organizations that allow incarcerated individuals to train shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities and veterans.

The department also has working narcotics detection dogs that the department uses to find drugs and other contraband in cell searches. While working dogs differ from disability service dogs in the type of tasks they preform, all service dogs have the legal right to enter all public spaces.

Here’s a look at some of the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) service dogs.

Service Dogs for Service Members

Five of the DOC’s prisons have programs in which incarcerated individuals train shelter dogs to become service dogs. Monroe Correctional Complex works with the non-profit organization, Summit Assistance Dogs. The program focuses on training dogs to help people living with disabilities with tasks that impact their mobility.

Brigadoon Dogs, another non-profit organization, has programs at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Cedar Creek Corrections Center, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center and Washington Corrections Center. Incarcerated individuals in the Brigadoon Dogs program train dogs for people with disabilities as well as veterans who may have disabilities and/or post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). The dogs can even assist military service members with traumatic brain injuries.

One of those is Army veteran Brian Henry. He became withdrawn after his tours of service in Afghanistan. He suffered a traumatic brain injury being caught in the middle of a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED). Constant exposure to the violence and trauma of warfare left him with PTSD. He also developed some balance and memory issues resulting from his injuries.

Then Henry met Donner, a collie that incarcerated individuals trained at Stafford Creek’s Brigadoon Dogs program.

Walking Donner helped Henry with balance issues and start interacting with people in the public again. Donner was also trained to help Henry pick up objects. The routine of taking care of a dog helped improve Henry’s mental state so he could remember to do things like taking medications on time.

“When I met Donner, out of the four dogs I met, he was the one that stayed next to my side,” Henry said in a 2015 interview (YouTube video). “I still have nightmares. I still have other problems, but to get back out in the public to do things like that, he’s helped tremendously.”

Service dogs have had an impact on incarcerated individuals as well. Kasey Fenton, who is also an incarcerated veteran, is one of the Brigadoon Dogs trainers. Fenton is currently serving a 245-month sentence for two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. He said in a 2015 interview (YouTube video) that being able to help other veterans is a way for him to give back to the community that he took from.

“For me it’s a real good experience to be able to work with these dogs, being a combat veteran myself,” Fenton said. “I know the full effects of what it’s like just to want a companion dog.”

Since 2014, the Brigadoon Dog program at Stafford Creek has graduated approximately 24 dogs, according to facility Public Information Officer Salina Brown.

Working Dogs

The Department of Corrections has teams of narcotics detection dogs at five facilities: Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC), Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC), Stafford Creek Corrections (SCCC), Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) and Washington State Penitentiary (WSP). The Department has a total of five handlers and 10 dogs.

The dogs are trained to find drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, spice, and suboxone. Some can also find other types of non-drug contraband like cell phones.

They mainly search areas like prison visit rooms, but may also be used to conduct individual cell searches. Occasionally, staff use the dogs to search for contraband at work releases or other facilities. Sometimes other law enforcement agencies that don't have narcotics dogs call on them to assist in searches.

Barbara Davenport is the corrections specialist who leads training sessions for handlers. She’s trained DOC dog handler teams as well as those for other law enforcement agencies. agencies. They train at the Washington Corrections Center (WCC) in Shelton and return to their assigned agencies after completion.

Over the past 39 years, Davenport estimates she’s trained more than 450 dogs. But what many people don’t realize that all the dogs Davenport has turned into certified drug-sniffing dogs is that they are all rescued from animal shelters.

The dogs Davenport searches for are the ones with high-energy. The ones that seem to have an obsessive-compulsive desire to fetch items. Those characteristics are often too much for even the most experienced pet owners to handle, which is why they often end up in shelters.

"The right dog for me is what most people would deem a 'throw-away' dog; one that's unadoptable for the public," Davenport said in 2016. "The public doesn't understand how extreme these dogs are... The dog that's trying to eat the fence, or trying to jump out and search endlessly for the ball, that's the kind of dog we're looking for."

Davenport said that compulsion can be channeled into work. A dog’s drive to fetch a toy can be used to find narcotics. Handlers train their dogs to detect narcotics using a “scent box,” which is a compartmentalized box with a few holes drilled into it. The handler puts a narcotic scented item inside the box. Eventually, the dog is trained to put its nose on the box and once it does, the handler rewards the dog with a toy.; The dog learns that when they sniff out a narcotic, they will be rewarded with the toy.

Davenport says the most rewarding part of training narcotics detection dogs is improving public safety while saving a life at the same time.

"It's taking a dog that’s not adoptable to the public, that has a foregone, dismal outcome otherwise, and turning that dog into a successful, valuable resource in the community."