Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Travis County Guide Dog Program

Each morning that I walk into work at the Courthouse I see a program occurring that truly inspires me to hope. The Travis County Guide Dog Program is in cooperation between the Travis County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) and “Pawsitive Approach” of the Guide Dogs of Texas, a non-profit. The goal of the program is to help rehabilitate certain non-violent offenders (who meet certain guidelines to qualify for the program), and provide basic training for guide dogs provided to visually-impaired Texans.

Who are the people and pets impacted?

The program was authorized by the Travis County Commissioner’s Court on October 23, 2007, and was formally launched September 30, 2008. At this time, TCSO has involved 7 dogs and 19 total inmates working with the dogs, and 15 officers in various capacities. The inmates care for the dogs 24/7; when the dogs and the inmate handlers are outside, two officers accompany them at all times. The dogs are taken throughout the community in all situations that the dogs would need to guide owners. The full impact is not measurable, though. Sgt. Cindi Sassmanshausen commented on the program, “Being in jail is awful and depressing for them. The Dogs are so good for them. You can watch their eyes light up when they give the guide dog a command and he follows the request. It’s awesome to see. I know that it instills discipline and I know that it’s very rare if they return to custody.” The inmates learn and exercise responsibility, learn how to nurture, focus attention, solve problems, and cooperate with others to achieve a positive goal. Such skills help these offenders learn how to have positive impact, but more importantly, to want to make such impact.

In my efforts to help promote what the TCSO is doing, I have had a chance to read the letters written by several inmate participants in this program. The emotion and joy expressed is extremely palpable. From these letters, I can tell that the inmates had achieved amazing growth.

The inmates learned empathy, that dogs “are more than just pets … they have feelings that get hurt.” The inmates learned gratitude, all thanking TCSO and Guide Dogs of Texas, with one stating that the program gave him “the second chance of a lifetime.” The inmates learn love, with many openly expressing love and respect for the dogs and “love turned a negative situation into the positive experience.”

The cost of housing inmates for their lifetimes is expensive. By finding ways to help inmate not re-offend, Travis County's program can save such expenses to the taxpayers in the future, largely because of the love and kindness of dogs. This program is approaching a one year anniversary. These dogs are saving many lives, including the visually-impaired recipients who can receive a guide dog to assist them, but none more imperative than their inmate handlers who found a purpose and a renewed belief in themselves.

With some news cycles only showing the negative aspects of life, a program that redeems life is ... well hopeful! Thank you to the Travis County Sheriff's Office and the Travis County Commissioners Court for having the vision to engage life in a rewarding way. If you would like to a see a piece that KVUE did last year on this program, you can see that story at: