He entered the prison system when he was 20 years old. During a robbery, Rey Soto killed a man. Back then, he failed to grasp the importance of life, he said.
For ten years, he enrolled in programs within the state’s prison system. Soto reached a point where he felt the need to put his knowledge to practice. And six months ago, he joined Wildwood Correctional Center’s new dog program — inmates train dogs the prison receives from the Kenai Animal Shelter.
“After a decade of programs — faith-based, rehabilitation and therapeutic classes — I felt it was time for me to really put the rubber to the road,” he said, holding onto a leash attached to an Australian shepherd named Milo. “I needed to have real responsibility other than myself. That was the real desire.”
The dog program at Wildwood is a pilot program. Its director said she hopes to grow the educational program as it moves forward. The involved inmates gain life skills through working with the dogs, the first two of which were puppies when they arrived at the prison.
The program currently consists of two dogs, with a primary handler for each. It began June 1, and one dog — another Australian shepherd named Woody, who was skittish when he first arrived — has been adopted since its beginnings. And therein lies one of the two reasons for the program, the adoption of abandoned dogs.
Second, it teaches eligible inmates life skills through dog training. The inmates, Soto and Jeremi Merrow, live with the dogs in Wildwood’s minimum-security section. Their days consist of caring for and reinforcement training of the animals.
Modeled after Hiland Mountain Correctional Center’s Special Pet Obedience Training Program, aka SPOT, it’s significantly scaled back. Hiland’s program is a partnership between Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Department of Corrections. It consists of a dozen dogs that receive training from inmates on a six- to ten-week cycle.
Wildwood’s dog program has no such time constraints, yet. Milo has stayed at the prison for all six months. His training continues, and the hope is he’ll be adopted sooner rather than later, said assistant superintendent Shannon McCloud.
She suggested the dog program to Wildwood’s superintendant in May, and he eventually softened to the idea. McCloud holds big plans for the future, too. She is enthusiastic about the possibility of training therapy dogs.
“In the future, I’m hoping, it will be more intense training,” she said. “They could be taught to turn off lights and remove socks for someone who is disabled.”
For now, the focus is simple obedience training. A trainer visits the prison weekly and helps reinforce lessons and offer new direction to the prison pets’ coaching. But the dogs aren’t the only ones benefitting from the training.
The program’s two inmates spoke positively about the impact it’s having on them. Soto said the program is an opportunity to develop real life skills. When he gets out of prison — his sentence calls for seven more years, but he’s up for parole in four — he’ll have to deal with everyday stressors, he said.
“Most people, when they grow up, they start learning about responsibility when they’re old enough to get their first job. Well, I took the easy way out and decided I didn’t want responsibility,” Soto said. “The program’s helped me understand that someday I’m going to get out, and it’s prepared me.”
He’s never been a part of his son’s life, he said.
Also, he’s giving back to the community through the program. Soto wants to be positive and productive for the remainder of his incarceration, he said.
The most important skill Merrow learned through the dog program is patience. Merrow, a plumber by trade, has three children. The dogs are helping him cope with his approaching release on Jan. 27.
“Learning patience through training the dog is going to help me be better with my children,” he said.
Merrow takes care of Layla, a female husky-rottweiler mix. She entered the prison program after having been returned to the animal shelter three times. Her behavior has vastly improved, McCloud said. They plan to train Layla to carry packs, in hopes that an older bachelor will adopt her and take her on hunting trips.
“She looks a lot like a rottweiler, so she’s a hard sell for families,” she said.
Essentially, it’s Layla’s last chance to find a home.
Both dogs performed basic obedience skills outside in the frigid air, walking patiently by leash and sitting on command. The two dogs also enjoy playing with each other when allowed. While inside the cafeteria of the minimum-security section, they walked around freely and received pets from most inmates, who smiled as the dogs approached them.
McCloud said she hopes to eventually expand the program to include about five dogs. People interested in adopting the program’s dogs can do so through the Kenai animal shelter.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.