The program has now expanded beyond the confines of Atlanta's Fulton County Jail, where incarcerated men live with the dogs they're training.
man training dog for canine cellmates
Credit: Courtesy of Canine Cellmates

If Susan Jacobs-Meadow only wanted to rescue dogs, she admits she would not be in her current, more complicated line of work. 

She certainly loves dogs and has helped more than 150 of them find new homes—but that's after many of them have lived in one of the last places you'd expect to see rescue pups: the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta.

That's where Canine Cellmates has matched incarcerated men with rescue dogs since 2013. Inside, the men have trained and cared for the dogs until the pups are ready for adoption. The training obviously helps the dogs, but the program—which has tutored 400 guys and has expanded outside the jail—is also aimed at helping the men rediscover themselves and prevent recidivism.   

Classwork and instruction can help humans get in touch with their emotions and learn—but it's not nearly as effective without the dogs. 

"I happen to believe that dogs have a gift that other animals don't have, and that gift is to have the ability to look inside a human being and find that good that's in there—'cause it is. It always is," Jacobs-Meadow, Canine Cellmates' executive director, tells Daily Paws. "But then they have the ability to help that person see that within themselves."

She's not the only one to believe in that gift. Across the country, more and more incarcerated people are working with dogs, who in turn help the men and women break through figurative walls the incarcerated people have built around themselves. 

Both Jacobs-Meadow and Kimberly Collica-Cox, a criminal justice professor and director of the Parenting, Prison and Pups Program in New York, have seen their programs' men and women open up because of the dogs. That boatload of anecdotal evidence has transformed into research from Collica-Cox, showing the women in her therapy dog-aided program reported feeling higher self-esteem and less stress as they learned valuable parenting knowledge. 

"[The dogs are] always happy to see you, and I think that makes people feel really good about themselves," Collica-Cox says. 

Dogs in Jail

In Atlanta, the Canine Cellmates in-jail program lasts 10 weeks. Dogs, usually from Fulton County Animal Services, undergo temperament testing to see if they could live in the jail with the men. These dogs have to be resilient with a therapy dog-like demeanor, and Jacobs-Meadow estimates that only 10 percent of dogs can do it. 

In the jail, the dogs join the men in a dorm-style living area, usually six dogs per 13 men. The men are generally on their third to fifth offense, between 30 and 45 years old, Jacobs-Meadow says. Because jail populations are more transient—men attend court dates, are released, or transfer to other facilities—the guys work in teams. They train the dogs basic cues as the dogs chip away at the walls of self-preservation the men have built while incarcerated. 

"The dogs have the ability to create cracks in those walls. They help these men to find that place of humanity in them that they've been suppressing," Jacobs-Meadow says. 

She says she's seen men transform from non-responsive or in-your-face and deflecting into "warmer, softer" versions of themselves because of the dogs. The shelter dogs are so helpful that she doubts the program's instruction and curriculum would be as effective without them. 

When the 10 weeks are up, Canine Cellmates holds a graduation ceremony in which the men receive certificates and the dogs get to go home with their adopters. 

"Our graduations are always very profound experiences for everybody who attends them," Jacobs-Meadow says. "Almost everybody who comes to our graduations cries, including the men. Because for a lot of these men, this experience is the first time they've ever stood in front of a group of people and been recognized for doing something positive."

'Life-Changing for Dogs and Men'

Hoping to replicate that in-facility success, Canine Cellmates last year welcomed its first Beyond the Bars class. This year-long program still includes the dog training, but these men also do classwork designed to help them prosper and remain in their communities. Upon completion, the mens' charges are dismissed. And the dogs are ready for adoption into the wider community.

For some men, Beyond the Bars is a diversion program, an alternative to incarceration. Some participants have yet to be indicted while others may have violated their probation. (Jacobs-Meadows credits the Fulton County District Attorney's office for working with Canine Cellmates on this outside program.)

Beyond the Bars' first class completed Phase 1—the 90-day dog training phase—in December. 

"The things that we're learning are priceless, meaning you can take them with you for the rest of your life," Iman, a 25-year-old Beyond the Bars pupil, tells Daily Paws. " … It's life-changing for dogs and men." 

Iman worked with a pointer and pit bull mix named Tundra. She's a little hyperactive, but once he found ways to help her calm down, she caught on to his positive-reinforcement training very quickly. This sweetheart hasn't been adopted yet, so Iman is quick to endorse her as a candidate for someone's family.

"We truly have a connection, me and her," he says. "I talk to her just like a person."

He says the dog training felt like he was getting to know someone rather than work. Maybe that's why, upon hearing about the program, some people have told him they'd like to participate on their own time. 

He also enjoyed the program's curriculum, especially the instruction on emotional competency. That's how he learned to meditate. He called that instruction "life-changing," saying it taught him how to regulate his emotions.

He and the other men also received instruction on parenting, job hunting, computer literacy, and conflict resolution. After Phase 1, the men will complete three more 90-day phases before completing the program. In Phase 2, they'll visit Canine Cellmates once a week for class and to work with the dogs. 

Does It Work? 

Men have told Jacobs-Meadow "many times" that her program saved them from reentering the criminal justice system. One man, who went through the program about eight years ago, called her a couple years ago and asked if she'd seen the news about a large drug bust. His cousin had been arrested, and he credited Canine Cellmates for keeping him out of that situation. 

Collica-Cox's Parenting, Prison, and Pups program works in the Westchester County Department of Correction, where therapy dogs from Hudson Valley Paws for a Cause help the women open up as they undergo their parenting curriculum. 

The dogs sometimes act as icebreakers and will even comfort women as they talk about something upsetting, Collica-Cox says. The dogs provide comfort in a jail setting, and that's hard to come by. 

"It made me feel like I wasn't [incarcerated]. When I saw them, they took me away from here," one woman, jailed at the now-closed Metropolitan Correctional Center, told Collica-Cox and George J. Day in their research study on the program. 

The dogs also help human participants open up to the learning process earlier. For comparison, when Collica-Cox ran the program without the dogs it took the women longer—sometime not until the 10th class—to begin to share their experiences freely. With the dogs, the women disclosed personal information in the first or second class. 

"From there, you can build upon sort of deeper conversations, deeper issues," Collica-Cox says.

Both Jacobs-Meadow and Collica-Cox will applaud their dogs' ability to break the ice with their pupils, but then it's the men and women who do the hard work to learn new skills and train their dogs so they can rejoin the world.

"Come for the dogs but stay for the men," Jacobs-Meadow says. 

One of those men, Iman, enjoyed the dog training aspect of Beyond the Bars so much that he's working to become a certified dog trainer. He wasn't planning on that before the program, but now he's working toward his 420 hours of practice—surely with help from his American Staffordshire terrier Woki.

"When I got here, I gained a whole new love and respect for dogs when I started learning how to communicate with them," he says, "and I learned what they're trying to tell me."