The positive power of prison pets

When local dog trainer and owner of Diamonds in the Ruff Carol Byrnes began her dog training career back in the 1970s, mainstream dog training was focused on correcting “bad” or unwanted behavior.

“Everyone was issued a leash and a choke chain and taught how to execute a perfectly timed ‘jerk and release’ and how to ‘pop’ the collar to give an effective correction,” Byrnes said. “We were ever alert to when the dog was about to do something we didn't want.”

The theory was to catch the dog in the act of doing something unwanted, then immediately correct it so the dog would “learn” to avoid that behavior.

“I was really good at it back then but I don't do it anymore. It's just not necessary,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes uses all positive reinforcement: every time the dog takes a small step in the right direction - literally or figuratively - it’s rewarded with a treat.

“For every behavior you want your dog to stop doing, there is a behavior you'd rather see in its place,” Byrnes said. “Put your energy there. Teach and reward what you want to see.”

Byrnes said people often don’t understand that positive doesn’t mean permissive.

“We train to high standards but we do so without discomfort or dominance,” Byrnes said. “We catch the dog in the act of doing it right and reward that.”

In July of 2011, Byrnes and fellow dog trainer Kim Imel created the Pawsitive Dog Prison Training Program.

The program runs 10 weeks at a time and pairs up eight shelter dogs with incarcerated men at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Imel and Byrnes, and now also Byrnes' son Travis Byrnes, volunteer their time at the prison.

“The goal is to help shelter dogs learn skills to help them stay in their future homes,” Byrnes said.

It’s a second chance for dogs whose behavior make them less attractive for adoption. Some of the dogs are shy and fearful, some are hardened and reactive. The dogs come from Spokane Humane Society, which also provides veterinary care and medication. Treats, food and toys are donated.

The men who train the dogs carry their own luggage of destroyed lives and isolation, but the dogs don’t care. As devotion between dog and handler grows, both shed their barriers and begin to work together.

“It is quite possibly the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my training career,” Byrnes said. “Seeing the commitment of the men and the joy the dogs brought to staff and inmates alike, I was all in.”


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