Inmates, a Dog’s Best Friend

To canines, a trip to the pen is a way to get 90 minutes of unconditional love.

At times, John Troiano finds himself the envy of other prisoners at the Monroe Correctional Complex. It's not because he's bigger or meaner than any other convict--it's because of an Australian shepherd named Lady, a Great Dane named Serena, and a handful of other dogs that visit him and 24 of his peers every month at the complex's Twin Rivers Unit. "You see all these guys you'd never think would love an animal. They all want to pet the dogs," says Troiano, who's got a little more than three years left on a 15-year burglary sentence. Troiano and his fellow inmates don't just pet the dogs, they read to them—romance and adventure novels, books about spirituality, college catalogues, or whatever they choose to bring from the prison library. The dogs receive training and certification through the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization which deals with service and therapy animals, and the reading sessions are part of a year-old program aimed at improving literacy. It's likely the only such program for prisoners in the country, according to its founder, Carla Nordlinder. There are, however, similar programs that bring dogs into schools for children to read to. Dogs are non-judgmental, Nord-linder says, and consequently those who have trouble reading aloud find it easier when the audience is furry and four-legged. Nordlinder, who once worked with students and who volunteers at Monroe, says she realized the concept would work with prisoners, vast numbers of whom struggle with reading and writing. She says it took a while for inmates to grasp what the program was about (some of them just wanted to pet the dogs), but eventually the participants hit the books. For the most part, Nordlinder and seven other volunteers stay silent. "I'm just the handler," she'll tell the inmates, with the aim of decreasing self-consciousness. Occasionally, though, she'll say something like, "I don't think my dog understood that. Let me see." What do the dogs understand? "I know this sounds silly," says inmate Billy Vancourt, "but most of the time it seems like they're listening to what you read." Unless they fall asleep, that is. Troiano says it doesn't hurt his feelings when they do. Nordlinder says the dogs leap into the car when it's time to go to prison. "They have no idea it's a prison. They just know they're going to get an hour and a half of being loved."

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