Nuestra Comunidad: Inmates, shelter dogs help each other

Leah was a difficult dog to train. Through his experience working with her, Patrick Rodríguez has learned how to be patient and humble. Miguel Martinez/MundoHispánico
Leah was a difficult dog to train. Through his experience working with her, Patrick Rodríguez has learned how to be patient and humble. Miguel Martinez/MundoHispánico

In a large, dismal-looking building in the middle of the city where gloom and tension often reign, a program allows groups often in need of help a chance to help each other.

The Fulton County Jail is also the operation headquarters for Canine Cellmates, a program which pairs inmates with dogs from the Fulton County Animal Services shelter. It offers rehabilitation not just for the dogs, but also for the prisoners, who go from the main jail at 901 Rice St. to an adjoining building.

For several weeks, inmates live with the dogs and attend training and psychotherapy classes.

The room lights up the moment the dogs enter the training room. Everyone wants to proudly demonstrate what their dogs have learned. Lilly, a boxer, jumps into the arms of her trainer. This is a new trick that program director Susan Jacobs-Meadows had not seen before.

Leah is calm and experienced — excellent at her training. Those who meet her now would never believe the efforts to which her trainers went to get her to this point. Twenty-five-year-old Patrick Rodríguez, an inmate of Mexican descent who arrived at the prison in July 2016, is one of them.

“I’m Hispanic, and for my family, work is very important. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and the first person to attend college,” he explained.

It was during his college days, however, says Rodríguez, that his ambition led him down the wrong path.

“I made a really stupid choice. It has not only affected me, but it has affected every single person in my family. It has affected my job. I was running a decent amount of jobs. I had a condo in Sandy Springs, two cars, and all that is gone. I probably won’t set foot out in the free world until, at earliest, 2018, 2019,” said Rodríguez.

Despite his sentence and the remaining years he will spend in jail, Rodríguez has learned patience and humility, thanks to his participation in the program.

“There’s a parallel between the dogs coming from Fulton County and those of us coming from Rice Street,” said Rodríguez. “We’ve all been abused and our lives are tough. We are all trapped and confined, yet we all find this freedom. We are all mutually rehabilitating each other and getting ready for whatever comes next.”

Rodríguez is not the only one who has been positively impacted by the program. Most of the other inmates knew nothing about handling dogs, but through the process they all learned the importance of patience and teamwork.

Patience and humbleness are some of the qualities many of the inmates have acquired through participating in the program. Working with shelter dogs Lilly, Sir Charles and a host of other, they have been shown that positive reinforcement is the most efficient teaching style for everyone.

Some have said they’ve learned coping mechanisms and how to just smile. Organizers hope the skills learned in the program will translate to the world outside the prison walls.

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About Canine Cellmates

Susan Jacobs-Meadows began the program five years ago at the Fulton County Jail.

It has a selection process where each dog’s temperament is studied to determine who would best adapt from the shelter to a jail environment. In the same way, inmates are first selected by the jail and then by the organization. The initiative requires support from the community: volunteers, donations and adoptions are always needed.