- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) - Michael Hill Jr. has seen a shift in the Reno County Correctional Facility inmates’ demeanor and their way of thinking.

Five inmates with different backgrounds have recently been selected to work and live with Chip, an 18-month-old black Labrador retriever/Dalmatian mix, as part of the facility’s newest program as of May 25, the Lucky Dog Program.

“When they see him, if they’re having a bad day, it completely goes away for that moment,” said Hill, Reno County Correctional Facility program director, of all inmates - not just the five who train Chip. “If they’re having a bad day, one of the officers might say something, and in the past, they might respond negatively, but now they’re able to think further down or outside the box in a sense.”

The program, which has successfully been at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility for 14 years, teaches inmates to train rescued dogs basic commands, along with crate train and housebreak them. The dogs otherwise would have been euthanized at local animal shelters due to age or behavioral problems.

Hill has seen the inmates who work with Chip - a handler and co-handler, who have a more-lengthy stay, and three volunteers - are starting to learn patience, responsibility and compassion.

They’re also becoming a family.

“Part of the piece of the puzzle we were hoping was that these guys get an opportunity to see what it’s like to take care of someone else,” he said, noting that not many inmates have ever had that.

Chip’s handler said he is like a child - he needs protection and a lot of attention.

“I was spending some time with him the other day, and it dawned on me that he doesn’t know that he’s in jail. He’s fed, he’s loved and he’s cared for,” his handler said. “He teaches us, I think, to be happy, even when we are at our lowest.”

The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/28MLMgq ) has been asked not to release the inmates’ names as it’s likely they’re going through court.

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How it all began

Out of the blue one day, Jail Capt. Shawn McClay told Hill that he’d like the inmates to have a dog program.

Hill recalled having a conversation with Hutchinson Correctional Facility officials about how successful the Lucky Dog Program has been at their facility, so he reached out to them.

These officials invited Hill, McClay and the undersheriff to the facility to learn about the program and see how it works firsthand.

“It’s really neat to see the agencies work together, because at the end of the day I know it’s about Chip and what happens to him, and we’re saving the dog’s life,” Hill said. “But on a different spectrum, I think it’s about the inmates and how we’re saving their lives in hopes that when they get out that they’re productive in society.”

After getting hold of the Lucky Dog ladies, things started to blossom.

A month or two and a visit to the facility later, the Lucky Dog Program coordinators decided the program, and dog, would be a great fit for the facility.

“They’ve been so wonderful to work with,” said Sandra Bell, vice president of Friends of Animals in Need Inc., and Lucky Dog coordinator.

The Lucky Dog coordinators teach a weekly training class and also tend to stop by when the facility needs things - like more dog food, waste bags or toys.

Bell’s noticed that all five of the inmates are training him like they’re supposed to, and he’s really adjusting well.

No inmate has been kicked out of the program due to bad behavior.

A benefit of being a part of the program, other than working and spending time with Chip, is that the inmates are allowed to live in their own cells in the five-person pod, instead of living with a total of 20 inmates.

These inmates are not paid to be a part of the program.

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Quite the adoptable dog

Chip was surrendered to the Lucky Dog Program from a family with children late last August. The family was worried he’d be hit because he kept getting out of the yard that was on a busy street.

“He’s a wonderful dog, but he was getting stressed at the prison because of too many people and too much activity,” Bell said, noting he was trained at HCF.

Chip had problems with authority figures at the prison.

When the sort team comes into a building with inmates, the inmates get tense, Hill said, typically because they’re doing things they aren’t supposed to. When this happens, the dogs can sense that, associating those in uniform as being “bad people.”

“We noticed when he got here, he didn’t really have any issue with inmates, but he had an issue with people in uniform,” Hill said.

To correct this, RCCF staff will take him around the facility, or to their departments when things are slower, like booking and administration.

Hill said it’s neat seeing officers play with him and taking him for walks around the perimeter.

Chip’s stress level has gone down and he’s a much happier dog now, Bell said.

Having a dog that’s already trained has helped the inmates learn the proper commands.

Since he’s already trained, Chip is up for adoption.

“Hopefully he goes to a good home, where maybe there’s some kids. I think it’d really be good for him. He’s a protective type of guy,” his handler said.

For now, the RCCF program only has Chip, but as time passes and Chip is hopefully adopted, the Lucky Dog Program will consider bringing another dog over from the prison.

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Strengthening another relationship

Chip’s co-handler said the officers are good at spending time with the dog.

“The part I like the best, besides our accountability, responsibility and bonding, is that it opens up the doors to the officers, as far as getting people to see that we can communicate and be on the same accord to achieve the common goal,” the co-handler said.

Hill said he believes the officers look at these five inmates differently now.

Chip’s handler agreed.

“They get a chance to know who we are instead of just a picture in a pile, and that’s a big difference,” he said. “I enjoy that opportunity. It means a lot to me - them getting to know who I am as a person instead of where I came from.”

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Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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