Inmates to train shelter dogs

FRONT ROYAL – The Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail will soon begin the first program in the state to bring shelter dogs and jail inmates together in an effort to help the animals and the humans.

The plan calls for having the dogs stay at the jail with a designated group of inmates who will train them as rescuers and care for them.

Deputy jail superintendent Russell Gilkison and representatives from the Warren County Humane Society unveiled the program Thursday at a meeting of the Jail Authority’s Finance and Personnel Committee.

Similar programs have been operating around the United States, but not in Virginia.

“In Virginia, we don’t know of any other local jails doing it,” Gilkison said of the program.

The inmates and the dogs will be vetted by the jail and the humane society to determine if they have the traits that will allow them to interact with each other successfully.

“We want to start slowly with one dog to see how it works out,” said Marcy Gallo, the humane society’s kennel director.

Part of the program involves training the inmates to be trainers, a task that will fall to Diana Lieber, a retired trainer who has worked with dogs in the Air Force and other parts of the government. She will be visiting the jail several times a week.

“I’ll be able to judge how an inmate is doing based on the dog’s behavior,” Lieber said.

Erika Unruh, canine team leader with the humane society, said the program is aimed at teaching inmates patience and compassion.

The dog and its inmate-trainers will share a housing unit designated for the program. The dogs will remain confined with the inmates at all times, except for periodic visits by humane society volunteers who will take the animals outside for exercise.

The plan calls for the dogs’ bodily wastes to be absorbed by a combination of synthetic turf and pan system that will be placed in an enclosed area next to the housing unit.

“It’ll be real easy for inmates to do everything themselves,” Unruh said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.