SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Nala, a 1-year-old terrier mix, is a ball of energy.
Her tail wagged rapidly as she tried to hold back her excitement inside the visitors' room of the South Dakota State Penitentiary last month. There's a lot to be excited about with new people and other dogs around.
However, she was still sitting and listening to her handler, inmate Justin Goens. Nala likes people and wants to please them, something Goens knows very well and has used to his advantage.
"When she barks or nips, I just turn around and walk away," he said. "She really likes people, so when she's acting up, I just take away what she likes."
Growth, understanding and friendship are all a part of the Paroled Pups program inside the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Since 2004, the program has provided a home to unwanted dogs and a sense of joy to the inmates.
The program started 15 years ago with four dogs and only one handler. Now, six dogs at the penitentiary work and interact with a handful of inmates inside and outside the grounds of the institution.
Most dogs end up in the program because they need some sort of stability before adoption. Nala was an extremely jumpy dog and had a hard time focusing. Sioux Falls Area Humane Society Officer Andy Oestreich said that sending dogs to the penitentiary helps with stability because they follow a set schedule.
From 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, the dogs are out and about with the inmates. For one hour of the day, the dogs spend time learning simple commands such as sit and stay. Each week a report card is written by the inmate to Oestreich about the dog's progress.
The rest of the day is spent playing and walking around, inside and outside the walls of the prison. This helps the dogs develop a stronger social sense by being in different environments with different people. Oestreich said this aspect is key in developing the adaptability of the dog.
"People take dogs everywhere nowadays," Oestreich said. "Whenever a family is at a park or downtown, they want that dog to behave and not go crazy. The pen is always busy and always has people walking around, so it's a good environment for the dogs to adjust to."
After six months in Paroled Pups, these once un-adoptable dogs have a second chance. The majority of them will find homes with new families while others will continue training to become service dogs. The program offers a second chance many dogs won't receive, as well as giving inmates a friend.
"This program really makes the dog more desirable compared to when they first came to the Humane Society," Oestreich said. "It creates a pet that people want to enjoy and be proud of."
The relationship with the dogs goes far beyond the classroom as inmates looks to build a bond.
"One of the things we do is sit in their kennels with them," Goens told the Argus Leader. "Some have been abused and are scared of people, so we sit with them and get them used to us. Once they get used to us, the goal is to bring them to others."
As the dogs begin to gain the trust of their handler, the inmates begin to warm up to the dogs as well. Goens said that even the toughest of inmates break down into a baby voice when a pup comes by.
The training process isn't always enjoyable. There's a lot of patience that comes into training a dog, especially one with behavioral issues.
It might take one dog an hour to learn how to sit, where another dog may need a week. It can be frustrating at take a toll on one's patience.
"Sometimes you expect them to be able to catch on a lot quicker, and they don't," Goens said. "A lot of people think they're doing that to spite you, but they're just being dogs."
The end product does have its benefits not only for the dog, but the handler as well.
"I like seeing them get better," said Kenneth Staab, an inmate and trainer with Paroled Pups. "It lets me know that I know what I'm doing and that I'm picking up what I am learning."
There is a bitter sweet feeling for inmates when a dog leaves the penitentiary at the end of the six month program. It's sad to see the pup leave, but they know that the dog is heading to a good home.
"You grow attached to them because you spend a lot of time with them," Goens said. "You build that relationship with them, and then they're gone. It's sad because you're losing your friend, but you're happy because they're going home."