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Training dogs, teaching empathy: Jail program pairs long-term inmates with dogs at risk of being euthanized

Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Jessica Villagomez

To watch this inspiring piece click here


Hoffman is a dog eager to please.

The 19-month-old white and brown-spotted pit bull took the stage Wednesday at the Tails of Redemption graduation ceremony ready to show off his obedience skills. He walked, sat at the command of his handler and stayed in his designated spot while Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart fastened a collar with a star badge onto his neck.

But Hoffman broke character. He jumped on the sheriff, rolled on his belly and accepted pets, smiling as his brown ears were rubbed.

Hoffman is one of five graduates of Tails of Redemption, a program in the Cook County Jail in partnership with Chicago Animal Care and Control. The program, which began working at the jail late last year, pairs dogs at risk of being euthanized with long-term inmates at Cook County Jail.

Inmates live in their cells with a dog over six to eight weeks and train the dogs to make them more adoptable. The dogs that graduated Wednesday were the second group to finish the program.

All dogs from the last class were adopted. So far, three of the five dogs from Hoffman’s graduating class have been adopted or claimed.

The program has been popular with inmates. More inmates have volunteered to host a dog than there are dogs to go around. Since the dogs need to bond with someone, they must be paired with an inmate who is expected to be in the jail for a long period of time. Only inmates who face a homicide- or sexual assault-related charge are excluded from the program, Dart said.

“This is not easy what they’ve done,” Dart said at the ceremony, “From someone who has two dogs who never listen to him ever, it’s amazing what these detainees have done.” Dart has two goldendoodles, Calvin, 3, and Rolly, 5.

Dart advocated for the program for 10 years before he was able to bring it to the jail.

“I always thought of it as a program that had the ability to really get to the empathy part of a person’s psyche,” Dart said. “Almost anybody can teach a person how to mow a lawn, how to deconstruct a building, but to get someone to change mentally so when they leave here they are looking at the world in a different way.”

Dart hopes to expand the program. The jail could accommodate 20 cells for inmates with dogs, but that number may not be recommended by animal experts, he said. The next group of five dogs starts its training in two weeks.

Hoffman still exhibits the characteristics of most young puppies. He whines, barks and jumps on those around him, rolling onto his belly for pets and snacking on small bone-shaped dog treats. But his handler, Mark Brooks, said he is a great companion with minimal energetic outbursts.




Brooks, who said he has had five pit bulls over the years, said it took some time to train Hoffman since he was a stray dog. For the first two weeks, Hoffman was suspicious of strangers but eventually formed a bond with Brooks.

“I learned as I went,” Brooks said. “It built on what I knew already, I got him to stay for a while, and he can stay for about fifteen minutes at a time.”

Brooks said he’s going to miss Hoffman but is happy to know he has been adopted.

Animal Care and Control Chair Cynthia Bathurst said the program helps the department with another way to prevent animals from being euthanized. In 2018, the department had a 91 percent save rate.

“The more animals that get out the better it is,” she said. “We can count on the slots, five dogs every 10 weeks is quite a lot of dogs.” Bathurst added that after around 60 days, dogs can become sick or stressed in a shelter environment.

Larger dogs that have been at the shelter for a longer period of time, like those selected for the program, are more at risk for developing behavioral issues, said Janice Triptow, Safe Humane Chicago’s manager of behavioral training. Those dogs can have kennel difficulties or are not socialized enough to be handled regularly by volunteers.

But, “They are still trainable and certainly workable dogs,” she said.

The city pound had 73 dogs available for adoption Wednesday, but other dogs pending evaluation can be added to the online database at on an hourly basis, an Animal Control representative said.

Twitter @JessicaVillag


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