Like many people, I was intrigued by the photos of Cheryl Armstrong with the dogs in prison. I have never visited a prison in Colorado, and I didn’t know anything about the dog training program that was established a number of years ago. I asked Cheryl about it and this is what she wrote to me:
“For almost two years of my incarceration I was on the dog program. The program actually got its start with 5 dogs at my facility over 6 years ago. It quickly expanded to 15 people here and is now in numerous facilities in Colorado. The [inmates'] beds are raised up so a kennel can fit under them. There are two types of dogs that come through the program — rescued dogs who are homeless and adopted out (after being trained), and dogs whose families have paid for them to be trained. Each inmate has one dog in her cell and her job is to train it. A dog is here 4-6 weeks, usually.
When I first got on the dog program, it was so strange having an animal living with me. I loved it!! I connected with all of the dogs that I trained and the taught me SO much. I gained an incredible amount of patience and compassion. They really softened my heart a lot and put a smile on my face every day. When my brother died in 2006, I remember how much having a dog by my side helped me through it. I felt completely alone and disconnected from my family in here because I couldn’t be with them, so having a dog there with me while I mourned gave me a huge sense of comfort.
The program helped me to become more disciplined. I had to get up at 5:30 every morning to take the dog outside and we have 3 hours every week day that we train the dogs outside. The 15 inmates on the team do a lot together and that definitely helped me to improve my social skills. You have to communicate and compromise with your co-workers. It helped me a lot because you can’t get away from these people at the end of the day so you have to learn to let things go. I used to hold onto everything and get irritated constantly. The dog program began to teach me that most things just aren’t worth getting worked up over. The dogs often took me out of this place and dissolved a lot of the stress that prison breeds.
It boosts people’s self-esteem also. I liked the responsibility of taking care of an animal and I always felt a sense of accomplishment after I’d taught a dog something new. We’d teach the dogs all the basic commands — sit, down, come, and stay, plus at least 2 tricks. I taught a couple of dogs (both Golden Retrievers) basic retrieving. I thought it was the greatest thing ever to have taught a dog to go pick something up and bring it to me.
I got off of the dog program last year and am now in a business technology class, but I’ll never forget what a great experience it was. I’ve taken all the things the dogs and the program taught me with me.”