Iron Paws Part 3: Program pairs shelter dogs with convicts - WNEM TV 5

Iron Paws Part 3: Program pairs shelter dogs with convicts

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For six weeks Freeland Correctional Facility has been home to six shelter dogs.

Inmates like John Jackson have worked day-in and day-out to teach them obedience, discipline and love.

“In my life, I’ve owned a lot of dogs, but I never had any dogs that behaved. We taught these dogs really well, and they come out pretty neat,” Jackson said.

Now is the time to find out if that hard work paid off. 

It’s test day.

“We’re kinda like their last chance. So far, we’ve had three dogs and we’ve placed all three of our dogs. They’ve all went to good homes,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that is saying something because most of the Iron Paws dogs are pit bulls or a mix. It’s a controversial breed that waits much longer than normal in animal shelters because of the stigma that surrounds them.

According to Save-A-Bull Rescue, only one in 600 pit bulls will find a forever home.

According to research by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, 96 percent of dogs that end up in shelters after being given up by their owners have had no obedience training at all.

Officer Joaquin Guerrero said it’s crucial the dog is bred properly too, which often doesn’t happen with bully breeds.

“In the 50s/60s it was shepherds, 70s it was Dobermans, then 80s were rottweilers. What’s happening is these people are not being educated,” Guerrero said.

So Guerrero is their voice.

“A dog that misbehaves and is mean and vicious, you can’t blame it on the breed. You gotta blame it on the dog itself. How was that dog treated,” Guerrero said.

These particular dogs have been treated pretty well, even in prison.

“It brings people together that would never even communicate or look hard at each other on the yard. Just having a dog, it brings the toughest guy, they’ll baby talk to a dog. Which, you don’t see a tattooed convict baby-talking dogs very often. But you do, because it’s a dog and people that are dog people just love dogs,” Jackson said.  

“By the fourth week its distractions. We’ll throw everything at ‘em. Then the fifth week, we’ll test out,” Geurrero said. “As I’m looking, the handler should be doing the corrections, should be stepping off with left or right foot, giving the hand signals and if they’re not doing that, I’m marking the handler wrong.”

But none of these guys plan to get marked down, they’ve put everything they have into these dogs.      

“Daily. Every day we train ‘em. Even when we’re out walking the yard with ‘em we’re giving ‘em commands and stuff to train ‘em,” said Leonard Stewart, inmate handler.

The discipline helps the handlers as well.

“Oh, it helps tremendously. It’s changed my whole outlook. Plus, it’s real nice to have someone that needs you,” Jackson said. “Just the compassion with the dogs, they brighten up your day. Some days you have bad days and they’ll come over to you and nudge you. Every dog is different.”

Although there isn’t cake, a celebration, or a party in prison on graduation day, there are a lot of smiles, a certificate and a pretty proud teacher.

It’s also bittersweet.

After spending six weeks with the dog, 24 hours a day, three of the six dogs have already been adopted. They’ll soon leave for their new homes.

“When it’s time for them to go, it’s tough. You get a little misty. You don’t wanna see ‘em go, but you’re glad when they get a forever home. Because nobody wants to live in prison,” Jackson said.

As the dogs depart, many of these men learn what it’s like to feel real loss, sadness and sacrifice.

“Every time they work these dogs and train them, and they have to give them up, they now know what that person may have gone through, what they did to them. It brings that back, and it’s like wow,” Guerrero said.

For Guerrero, the retired police officer who used to be responsible for putting these prisoners behind bars, his work is celebrated.

“Mr. Guerrero’s program is amazing. The way he taught us to do it, he’s got a great program. The guy really knows what he’s doing,” Jackson said.

So, why does he do it? Why is he helping the men who so many fear, fail to forgive and turn their backs on?

“Because they’re still a human being and people can change. Yes, they’re in there and yes, they’ve done wrong, but that still doesn’t not make them a human being. Anybody can change. It’s if they really want to," Guerrero said.

Click here to read part one.

Click here to read part two.

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