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There’s no escaping the Dirty Two Dozen

Nobody has busted out of the Idaho Correctional Center in more than 20 years, and prison officials say the credit goes to the Dirty Two Dozen — a team of snarling guard dogs that patrol the perimeter.

Their names sound friendly enough —  Cookie, Bongo and Chi Chi among them — but the dogs, they say, are a mean lot, former death row inmates deemed too dangerous to be pets. Most would have been euthanized at the local pound if not for the prison duty that served as their reprieve.

The program began in 1986, when 24 dogs — German shepherds, Rottweilers and Belgian malinois, boxers and pit bulls — were placed in the space between the inner and outer chain-link fences that surround the prison.

The canines require no salary, don’t join unions and are more reliable during power outages than electrical security systems. They also seem to have a powerful deterrent effect.

“We’re basically giving them a second chance at a good, healthy life,” Corrections Officer Michael Amos, who heads the sentry dog program, told the Associated Press. “Those same instincts that make them a bad pet make them good sentries.”

“The average offender has no problem engaging in a fight with a correctional officer — they’re used to fighting with humans. But they don’t want to mess with a 100-pound rottweiler who has an attitude and who wants to bite the snot out of them for climbing that fence,” said James Closson, a dog trainer in Boise. He arranged the donation of some overaggressive dogs to the prison when the sentry program was new.

Over the years, the dogs have bitten handlers, badly mauling a staff member who in the late 1990s entered the kennel without first making sure all the animals were caged. But no inmates locked up at the prison have been bitten, authorities said.

Interestingly, the prison also has a program in which inmates train and care for shelter dogs, designed to give the dogs a better chance of getting adopted. But those dogs, though they may have behavioral issues, aren’t as hard core as those that guard the fence.

Dogs were once widely used as sentries, according to the AP story, but the  practice fell out of favor during the civil rights era as police dogs became associated with racist and repressive law enforcement.

Many prisons continue to use dogs for tracking escaped inmates or sniffing out drugs or other contraband, but not as sentries.

Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, an inmate advocacy group, said he knows of no complaints about the use of prison sentry dogs. Adam Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, said that the Idaho prison appeared to be handling the dogs well, but that he had mixed feelings about the program.

“We love the thoughts behind it, of taking dogs who would otherwise be euthanized and finding a way to work with them and give them a kind of purpose to their life,” Goldfarb said. “But we’d have concerns of the dogs being harmed in some way, if an inmate could throw or poke something through the fence that could harm the dogs. And I’m not sure what kind of life that is for a dog. When people have dogs in their home, we would certainly discourage them from leaving the dog on a chain or in a pen for most of their life.”

The dogs work two days on and one day off. On their days off, they are returned to their kennel, where their handlers groom them, play ball and tug-of-war with them, or, in the summer, let them splash in a plastic kiddie pool. The handlers have to be alert at all times because of the danger of getting bitten.

The program, with 36 dogs in all, costs less than $100,000 a year, including food and veterinary care, Christensen said.


Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time March 25, 2009 at 11:33 am

Well, it’s great that the dogs were spared from death. And it’s great that the people of Idaho feel somewhat safer. And it’s terrific that they’re doing an in-prison program for inmates and dogs.

But the whole thing is just so flawed! Dogs make top-notch sentries. They’re dedicated, well-armed (armed to the teeth, actually), economical, and will work in all kinds of weather. Actually, when the Army came up with its lamebrained idea of banning certain breeds, they picked several (such as the Doberman) that have been used as military sentries for generations.

The idea of having a bunch of guard dogs who aren’t answerable, really, to any human being is just plain crazy. Dogs who do this kind of work need intensive, careful training. Part of that training involves instant obedience to their handlers. Part of it also involves procedures for what to do with a bad guy once they catch him. Frankly, if I were a malefactor in Idaho thinking about breaking out, I’d simply put together some poisoned food. It wouldn’t be all that difficult, especially with the contraband situation in prisons being what it is. A trained guard dog is trained to ignore such “treats.” An untrained, random sort of dog would probably be diverted and take the bait. They need to allocate a few more budget dollars to get the dogs and their handlers some proper training. It’s perfectly feasible.

Comment from amy
Time March 25, 2009 at 10:16 pm

I agree with Anne’s comments- however- if a national organization could properly manage the operation and provide 20 dogs to 300 prisons – 6000 aggressive dogs could be saved. I realize there are costs involved to ensure a quality of life for these dogs but it would save their lives from certain death in a shelter where there are few resources to rehabilitate and rehome them. I would bet this would still be less costly then human guards. Perhaps a cause and a means for Michael Vick to redeem himself!