Orofino, ID- “Let’s Pray”, is one of the many tricks that dogs learn while attending the PAWS program in the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino (ICIO). This program is a special avenue that gives both the dogs and incarcerated men themselves a second opportunity. Lewis Clark Animal Shelter selects dogs that may have behavioral/ socialization or obedience issues who will benefit from training to make them more adoptable. These dogs often come into the shelter as strays, are surrendered, or rescued due to abuse. The dogs are then transported to the Idaho Correctional Institution Orofino for an eight-week training program (PAWS).
The trainers for the program are incarcerated men who are part of the honor unit. The honor unit is achieved after good behavior and improvement is shown over a certain length of time. The honor unit consists of inmates who want to change the trajectory of their lives and often work towards their education or vocation while they are at ICIO. Before the K-9 trainers can work with the dogs, they have to take courses and training themselves. Participants in the program are not limited just to trainers, they are also cleaning staff, photographers, inventory coordinators, etc. It takes lots of hands on deck to make this program successful and it does bring inmates together to work as a team.
PAWS dogs have shown to have extraordinary abilities, once they are done with the program. Several of them have shown the talent and empathy to be service animals. A one-year-old pup is currently training to be a service dog. He was a stray a few months ago. It goes to show that all dogs are worthy; they just need someone, such as members of the program, to show the world that. Other dogs, once successful in graduation of the program, go to find their permanent homes and join to be a member of a family.
While dogs are learning skills that will make them more adoptable, the inmates are also learning the importance of caring for something that has a bigger purpose. While walking into the Paws unit, it is clear that the dog trainers live by the motto painted on their walls with “Dogs First”. An inmate shared that it is difficult at the end of the eight weeks to see the dogs go back because they have formed a connection. For some, these dogs are the first things in a while that they have really cared for. Despite the hard goodbye, he said he would do it over and over if it meant he could help more dogs.
It is important to note the role that Sgt. Lichti plays in the program. He has been the director of the PAWS Program and one of its biggest advocates. While touring the facility, it is evident the close bond that he has with the dogs and the honor unit itself. He is like a mentor to these incarcerated men who want to do better in life.
These dogs allow the handlers to see the good they can do despite their past records. In exchange, handlers teach the dogs the skills they will use to find their homes and be excellent companions. Once the handlers of the PAWS program serve their time and leave the Idaho Correctional Institute, a dog collar with their name is painted on the wall to show others it is possible to have a second chance and use it wisely.