Custody Canine Program rehabilitates dogs and prisoners

The Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail Custody Canine Program, run by the Sheriff’s Department and dog behaviorist Rick Belmonte, is all about second chances.

Glock was taken from death row and rehabilitated in the Canine Custody Program. (Photo credit: Walt Mancini/Press-Telegram)

Every five weeks, two new dogs are pulled from death row at a local shelter and brought to the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail, where a group of inmates is given the task of getting those dogs ready to be adopted out to loving homes. The dogs live alongside the inmates 24/7, socializing with the guys while learning vital obedience skills. With Belmonte’s help, the inmates are taught how to properly handle, train, and housebreak each dog.

Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail inmate Caesar Cunanan, who is incarcerated on a drug charge, is grateful for the opportunity this program presents — for himself and for the dogs he’s cared for.

“I think it’s a good thing for these guys and for us,” Cunanan tells ABC News.

Cunanan, along with 35 other inmates at the Men’s Central Jail, is currently spending time rehabilitating two dogs once destined for death row: a German Shepherd named Glock and a young mixed breed pup named Jet. Cunanan feels a special connection to Jet because of some striking similarities in their pasts.

“Jet has taught me how to care about something else besides myself,” Cunanan explains.

“I’ve almost died on the street, too. I’ve been shot,” he says. “Just to give this guy another chance, because I’m thankful for me having another chance at living, too.”

“Having a job with Jet has made me probably more responsible,” Cunanan adds.

With only one year left on his sentence, Cunanan knows the Custody Canine Program and the four-legged friends he’s met as part of that program have changed his life forever. He hopes to be able to adopt a dog once he is released.

Glock, a 3-year-old purebred German Shepherd, once on a shelter’s euthanasia list for reported aggression, is now thriving thanks to the TLC he’s received from his new friends at the jail.

“Glock was a little aggressive, not obedient, didn’t want to stay in a kennel,” inmate John Buchholz tells the Press-Telegram. “In a matter of weeks, through a daily routine where we take turns every half hour to train him, we’ve seen progress.”

Buchholz is sure the Custody Canine Program will help Glock find his forever home soon.

This unique program has been a rousing success — for the dogs and the men who help made their second chances possible. All eight dogs rehabilitated by the Men’s Central Jail inmates so far have been adopted by members of the jail staff. And as for the inmates taking part in the Custody Canine Program — Belmonte says he can’t believe the transformation.

“They’re starting to walk taller,” he explains. “I’ve seen people who are shy, speaking louder. They’re feeling a sense of empowerment. I think that confidence will help them get a job interview.”

Sergeant Raymond Harley says the proof of the program’s effectiveness is in the pudding. Since the inmates have started caring for these dogs, the inmates have stopped acting out, and morale around the jail has improved tenfold.

“The inmates are much more calm and relaxed,” Sgt. Harley explains.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hopes to expand the Custody Canine Program to two additional prisons in the near future.

Sources: Press-Telegram, ABC News