Magic City K9 training program gives incarcerated men and dogs a second chance

On his graduation day, Gordon, an 80-pound Labrador with big brown eyes, ate bacon treats and whipped his cock excitedly as a dozen incarcerated men and prison officials stood by around him to applaud him. Other dogs in the metallic-gray cellblock played with rubber chew toys while the prisoners cleaned out their kennels. A corrections officer watched, amused.

Gordon was one of eight rescue dogs living at Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) in West Miami-Dade County and the last graduate of a program run by Magic City K9, a nonprofit based in Miami. Miami, which trains incarcerated people to prepare dogs for adoption.

Magic City K9 Manager, Dee Hoult, is a Certified Canine Behavior Consultant with 12 years of experience working with incarcerated males. In 2017, she brought her pilot program to Everglades Re-Entry Center, a nearby prison that currently houses twelve dogs, and it expanded to ECI in 2019.

“My goal has always been to be a cheerleader for those who don’t have anyone,” Hoult said. “Working with these guys is rewarding and the dogs are very happy.”

Magic City K9 saves dogs facing a fatal fate: euthanasia. Animals come almost exclusively from municipal shelters in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Hoult visits shelters herself to select the best-suited dogs for the program – usually the unruly and hyper-demanding ones who need extra attention and discipline. It is important to Hoult that they are not puppies or animals bred for this purpose.

“There aren’t, in my opinion, enough programs with shelter dogs, especially here in South Florida,” she says, of other prison training initiatives.

Once the dogs arrive at ECI, they live in a designated cellblock where large kennels sit inside two-man cells. Each dog has a fleece bed on the floor and sleeps safely next to their trainer and handler. Trainers are responsible for the dogs’ 24-hour care, including outdoor walks, feeding, and obedience training. Handlers, new to the trade, lend a hand while gaining experience.

“When the dogs first come here, they’re either aggressive or scared,” says Scott Turner, the program’s lead trainer. “But after receiving constant love and affection, their temperament usually changes.”

The day I visited, several men were lying on the tiled floor of the cell block playing with Flyer, a Kooikerhondje mix, and Max, a pit bull terrier. They were both very friendly. But across the room, I was immediately drawn to Orchid, a handsome 3-year-old black German Shepherd with his head on the floor and emotional eyes staring at me.

I walked over and held out my hand for her to sniff. She sat down to lick my fingers in approval. Growing up with golden retrievers running around my family’s backyard, I had learned the love between people and their dogs. Seeing Orchid reminded me that we can better understand something about ourselves by thinking about why we want pets.

Click to enlarge

An incarcerated man trains a dog for adoption.

Photo courtesy of Magic City K9

Gain experience

Some people are concerned about the welfare of dogs trained by incarcerated men. When I told an animal-loving parent about some new puppies at ECI, she asked if they were being cared for properly. Aspiring coaches apply for a spot in Magic City K9 and then are thoroughly vetted by ECI’s Senior Classification Officer, Donna Watson, who reviews, among other things, their disciplinary records.

“After an initial interview, we accept interns for a 90-day trial period,” says Watson, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the program.

Once the men cleared, the long certification process begins. To graduate, dogs must work their way up through a four-level module, starting with the basics like feeding, grooming, and leash walking, and followed by commands like “sit,” “stay.” and “come”. Over a period of 18 months, performance tests are administered to monitor their progress.

Both Scott Turner and Christopher Herr are advanced coaches, the highest level in the program. After completing the 4,000 hour course and mastering the required skills, they can not only train service dogs but also mentor other trainers, including Keith Jones, a basic trainer with four years remaining to serve.

Jones wanted to participate in the dog training program in hopes it would help boost his resume. “Earning this certificate adds to the positive things I accomplished in prison,” he says. “An employer will look at how I spent my time indoors.”

Click to enlarge Research suggests that animal companionship can help reduce stress, a crucial factor for people living in prisons.  - PHOTOS COURTESY OF MAGIC CITY K9

Research suggests that animal companionship can help reduce stress, a crucial factor for people living in prisons.

Photos courtesy of Magic City K9

The Mutual Rehabilitation of Men and Dogs

Rescue dogs like Face, a 100-pound Dogo Argentino, would have been killed had they not been moved to ECI. Similarly, Magic City K9 gives a second chance to incarcerated men looking for a new lease of life. The program encourages trainers to become more responsible and helps prepare them to reintegrate into society.

Trainers come from a variety of backgrounds: retired gang members, contractors, carpenters, ex-robbers and bosses. Some are recovering drug addicts who have focused only on themselves – until they have to care for an addicted animal. Others are career criminals who had never committed to anything before entering the program. And some men just never had the confidence or the opportunity to pursue something as difficult and worthwhile as training rescue animals. They come from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. They may be enemies in other prisons, but at the ECI, they live together with a common goal: to take care of the dogs.

Herr says using positive reinforcement to train animals taught him to be less negative. “I have anger issues,” he admits, “and taking care of these dogs helps me be patient with people.”

Psychiatrist Aaron Katcher and veterinarian Alan M. Beck have studied how our relationships with dogs can be as intense as those with our fellow human beings. “We talk to our pets as if they were people,” they write in their book. between animals and peoplefirst published in 1983. “Someone who lives with a pet lives with a family.”

Research also suggests that animal companionship can help reduce stress, a crucial factor for people living in prisons. It’s common for incarcerated people to feel emotionally neglected, but training a rescue dog can make a meaningful connection. “These dogs rehabilitate us as much as we rehabilitate them,” says Turner. “I’m a much happier person now.”

Click to enlarge Trainers and dogs at the Everglades Re-Entry Center - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGIC CITY K9

Trainers and Dogs at Everglades Re-Entry Center

Photo courtesy of Magic City K9

Save lives

Magic City K9 is not unique; Prison dog training programs have been around for decades, and according to a 2017 study, there are nearly 300 in the United States. But what sets this program apart is its open approach: Hoult likes to see how dogs behave. and what they do before determining where they will end up, whether as a pet, service animal or drug sniffer. So far, she and the trainers have saved over 200 animals from euthanasia.

Most of the dogs end up being adopted by families — like Steel, an 85-pound blue merle pit bull who was Turner’s sixth dog trained and his favorite. “He was intimidating but kind, and I spent a lot of time working with him on the controls,” Turner recalled.

After leaving the program, Steel was placed in a home with two young children. The owner later sent an update, saying the dog was obedient and friendly: “Steel is fantastic!…. As a dad, my number one priority is safety, but my kids and my partner l ‘WORSHIP.’

“Each time an obedient dog leaves for a new home and adoptive family, it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of men who haven’t always got it right,” says Hoult. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Yet while finding a loving home is the ultimate goal, it doesn’t make it easy for program participants when a dog graduates.

Turner still remembers how bittersweet it was to walk Steel to the visiting area the day he left for his new home.

“I said goodbye outside in the grass, and Mrs. Hoult walked Steel to the door. He turned and ran towards me and jumped into my arms, playing and struggling,” said said Turner. “It was really hard for both of us. I had never felt like this before.”

Ryan M. Moser is an award-winning writer and recovering drug addict from Philadelphia who spent eight years at the Florida DOC for property crimes. Nominated for a 2020 Pushcart and Best of the Net award, Moser has been published in numerous literary journals and several news sites.

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