At Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, inmates participate in a program called Freedom Tails, which partners them with dogs who have been labeled as “unadoptable” and might otherwise be euthanized. Stafford Creek was the first prison in state of Washington to implement a dog training program, and the project was such a huge success that nearly every prison in the state now has a similar program. The inmates who participate in Freedom Tails go through a screening and interview process, and must not have a history of domestic violence, child abuse, or animal abuse, and they must be infraction-free. Inmates are not paid to be in the program, as their participation is on a volunteer basis. There is a very long waiting list to get in.
The dogs that come into the program are often traumatized by abuse or neglect from their former owners, and are not socialized to interact with humans. The inmates work with the dogs to overcome these obstacles and build trust with their handlers. They then learn basic obedience, potty training, and recognizing verbal and hand-signal commands. Some dogs that show a special proclivity for learning and working with humans are trained to be service dogs for the disabled. On occasion, Freedom Tails brings in dogs who already have a home, but need to be trained for specialized commands specific to their owner. For example, a wheelchair-bound woman needed her dog to be able to open doors, retrieve her medicine bag, or help her up if she fell out of her chair. The dog learned all of these skills at Freedom Tails and earned an International Therapy Dog certification.