Canine Companions Behind Bars at San Quentin, Training Puppies To Be Service Dogs An Act Of Learning And Redemption

The sky is gray over California’s most notorious prison. Rain threatens. In the West Block Yard of San Quentin, a dozen inmates focus on their dogs.

Chase Benoit and Travis Fendley are working with Wendel, a black Labrador.

Benoit, who has put in seven years at “The Q,” part of his 16 years to life sentence, walks forward about 25 paces, turns and calls out: “Wendel, here, here.”

By now, Benoit has trained and lived with Wendel for a year, in a prison puppy raising program that has changed the 28-year-old’s life behind bars. So it seems automatic when Wendel promptly lopes over from Fendley to Benoit’s side, where he is rewarded with a biscuit.

“Very nice, right on,” says James Dern, the national director of puppy programs for Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions, which provides free service dogs to people with disabilities.

Dern, who is overseeing the training on this Friday, started talking with officials in 2017 to bring the Canine Companions prison program to San Quentin. Administrative turnover and then the COVID-19 pandemic stalled that effort. But it was revived by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s California Model initiative to transform the state’s prison system into one focused on rehabilitation rather than solely punishment.

The prison is now named San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, and its puppy raising program is in full swing.

Fendley, who has spent four years at San Quentin, takes Wendel off to a box the inmates built where the dogs can relieve themselves. Benoit says of his four-legged charge: “He’s helped me with being more responsible and just making me feel, you know, less incarcerated, like I’m not in prison when I’m working with him. It’s humanizing.”

These inmates are defined not by the crimes that sent them to prison but by what they bring to the prison puppy raising program, and what it’s done for them.

The yard is bordered on two sides by cell blocks that, oddly, evoke cathedrals, with high, inward-sloping beige walls that contain tall, narrow windows. On another side is a dining hall. Behind where the men are lined up with their dogs is a cluster of low white and tan buildings fronted by a chain-link fence and razor wire, beyond which green hills are visible.

Higher success rate

Canine Companions, a $45 million nonprofit, started its first prison program in 1995 in what is now Coffee Creek Correctional Center in Wilsonville, Oregon. The organization now has 15 such programs in operation, including San Quentin’s.

Dogs trained in prison, Dern says, have a 10% greater success rate at becoming full-fledged service dogs than other candidates. (Many Canine Companions dogs that don’t make it to that level go on to work as therapy, search and rescue or medical alert dogs.)

“It has a lot to do with the amount of time and care that our incarcerated puppy raisers take with the project,” Dern says. “They take it really seriously. And, you know, they tend to be really competitive, which is great. And they tend to be really highly skilled.”

Puppy raisers — in and out of prisons — go through canine behavior and canine learning theory classes, focusing on subjects including body language, a dog’s emotional state and how to ensure they are engaged with the handler.

Says Dern: “I see our puppy raisers at San Quentin really making good decisions for the dogs so the dog doesn’t end up practicing behaviors that can be problematic for service dogs. Not being overstimulated when they meet people, practicing greetings that are calm and maintaining responsiveness to the handler is really important.

“A lot of these skills and behaviors are things that dogs don’t just know. They need to learn it and they learn it by being provided experiences that are enjoyable for them, that they are successful in. And that takes foresight and it takes patience, and those are the skills” that the incarcerated trainers possess, Dern says.

There are six dogs in the prison program; each has two inmate trainers (currently, the men are also raising a seventh dog that has been placed at San Quentin). The dogs live around the clock with the trainers, who rise at 5 a.m. — an hour earlier than the other inmates — to take the dogs to relieve themselves. Every three months the dogs are relocated to a civilian trainer for a month to become accustomed to other environments. Every Friday, Dern or another Canine Companions’ staffer visit the prison to supervise training. The incarcerated men handle it the rest of the week.

The San Quentin trainers suggest and vet other inmates to be part of the program. Their recommendations are evaluated by prison staff and Canine Companions, who interview applicants and observe them interacting with dogs. Inmates with records that include any animal cruelty or sex crimes are not allowed to participate.

“We don’t just let nobody in this,” says Jared Hansen, 41, and 14 years into a 35-year sentence. He and Aaron Ramzy co-train Artemis, usually called Artie, a golden retriever.

Dern doesn’t ask about the San Quentin puppy trainers’ offenses.

“It’s out of respect for who they are. I don’t want to make assumptions about who these people are based on their history. It’s not a question that we ask other puppy raisers,” he says. “We want to be respectful and build a relationship with people based on who they are. I really want to keep my own sort of bias and opinions about people in check.”

Lt. Brian Haub, the second watch lieutenant in the cell block where the puppy trainers live, says those in the group have been convicted of crimes ranging from gun offenses to murder.

Once Death Row, now home to ‘model prisoners’

The cell block called Donner used to house Death Row. The condemned men’s cells, which measure 4 feet by 10 feet, occupied the lowest two of the building’s five tiers, and were distinguished from the others in that they held only one bunk, not two.

Last March, Donner was turned into what’s known as the Earned Living Unit, which now houses prisoners with the most exemplary behavioral records, like the puppy trainers; model prisoners, as Hansen puts it.

All 12 trainers live on the cell block’s ground floor, between cells five and 17. A slatted wooden fence has been built in front of those cells, creating a sort of front porch where the dogs and their trainers hang out. Under each bunk is a dog bed, a flat box with blankets that can be slid in and out.

The men in Donner are allowed to personalize their cells to a great degree, and Hansen has painted a beach scene with palm trees on the wall opposite his bunk. It’s Ocean Beach in San Diego, he says, where he grew up. He stands in the doorway to his cell. Artie is nearby, with Ramzy.

Donner aside, and the transition from a prison to a rehabilitation center notwithstanding, San Quentin is a challenging environment, Hansen says, and training Artie has helped him better navigate it.

“Trust me,” he says, “being a dog handler, we’re challenged with that every day right here. People that have mental illness problems, people that are on drugs, people that are unhinged. We come across them every day. Every day. But it’s good because it teaches the dog to be able to cope around situations like that, which they’re unfazed by anything. Now, these dogs will never be harmed by anybody, that’s a fact. But we could be.”

Here’s an example, Hansen says. If another inmate touches Artie, he might have to ask them not to because the dog is working. And he might hear back, “Well, it’s not your dog. F … that. They just start cussing at you and you’ve got to be able to take that.

“You’ve got be like, ‘Alright, man, have a good day.’ And those are things that if you would have hit me up years ago, I would have just automatically fought you. I would have just went in and took off on you. Now it doesn’t even bother me. It’s taught me how to deal with people no matter what kind of person,” Hansen says. “If you get one write-up, you’re out of this building. You lose everything that you have, including being able to be housed in this building in a single cell. I lose my dog.”

Breaking down walls, making amends

Many prison staff and inmates resisted the program at first. The dogs would make a mess, was one reservation. The prisoners wouldn’t be able to handle them, was another. They’d cause problems in the “population,” as inmates are often referred to by prison officials. They’d disrupt operations. Even, that the inmates might present a risk to the dogs.

About a year later, Haub has this to say: “It relaxes people having dogs in here. Every time they walk the dogs around, you can see staff and the residents smile. So it’s eased tension. It’s made people relax. It just makes for a better environment with them here.”

In the yard is a small stockade that inmates built for dog drills. Ramzy stands by the fence watching Artie practice one of the three dozen cues the dogs are taught; this one to remain focused when encountering another dog. Like many of his colleagues, Ramzy, who is 33 and has eight more years on his sentence, has thought deeply about the program’s impact on life in San Quentin.

“This has been a great morale builder. Up in the building. In the yard. It’s eased the tensions,” he says. “It’s been a culture shift with having Artemis here in San Quentin. Because before, I was just only seen as an inmate, right? But now with these dogs here, it’s humanized me to a lot of the staff. And that’s humanized a lot of the staff here as well. So it’s been a great bridge of culture change and community here.”

Specifically, he says, “That means unity. It means not objectifying people. Like before it was an us versus them mentality — you never have these interpersonal interactions with staff. But being here, having this opportunity, raising puppies, we see each other as allies, right? Why am I against you? We’re supposed to be here accomplishing the same goal. If you’re working for rehabilitation and I’m rehabilitating myself, then I mean, what is there to fight against? We should be working together, right?”

Ramzy surveys the other trainers. They are various shades of Black, brown and white. They are laughing, exchanging quips, asking Dern questions, and passing along tips about teaching dogs their cues.

“This has been beautiful, honestly,” Ramzy says. “As you can see, we have a lot of different races here, so we’re blurring the racial lines. That’s really not being blurred in other prisons, right?”

Unlike Ramzy, who has been with the program since its start a year ago, Oscar Constancio, 36, just became a trainer in September. He works with Scarlet, a golden retriever, and he says the experience has given him something he didn’t expect.

“I love this program. I’m able to give back to the people I hurt once, once upon a time in my life, because training these dogs, they get to go out to society and hopefully be full service dogs,” he says. “And that helps out somebody else that, you know, needs help, and I’m a part of that training. So that’s my way of giving back.”

“It’s no pay number,” adds Constancio, who has been at San Quentin 2½ years and has a parole hearing next month. “It’s volunteer.”

‘It changes your heart’

“We see you,” Susan Porteous, Canine Companions’ Northwest region puppy manager, says in front of perhaps 150 people gathered in San Quentin’s Chapel B.

It’s April 5 and the chapel is full. The audience includes about 20 other incarcerated men, many of whom are from other units and were invited as guests of the trainers (who are accompanied by their dogs), family members, Canine Companions staff, correctional officers and other prison officials. An inmate news and video production team documents the event.

Porteous addresses the trainers.

“We know you are individuals,” she says. “You have names. You are not numbers. We see you as the men you are today, and not for whatever you’ve done in your past. And we thank you for being a part of this.”

Cheers and applause fill the room.

The ceremony marks graduation day for Artemis and Wendel. From San Quentin they will go to the nonprofit’s Santa Rosa campus where, for up to nine months, their training will direct them to full service dog status. Starting today, Hansen, Ramzy, Benoit and Fendley will be training two new dogs, Pippa and Margaret.

Warden Chance Andes, the first speaker, says expanding the program is “definitely on the list. It brings such a sense of normalcy to a tough situation for us all: work environment and living environment.“

Other speakers recall the initial growing pains, trace the history of prison puppy training programs and commend San Quentin as critical to Canine Companion’s success. In a highlight moment, Benoit is joined on stage by his grandfather, Marv Tuttle of San Jose, who uses a wheelchair and has a Canine Companions service dog of his own, Goose. The men embrace. Before this day, they hadn’t seen each other in a decade.

“This program came at an extremely difficult time in my life,” Benoit tells the audience, “and I wasn’t 100% sure if adding the responsibility of a puppy was a good idea. But it turns out that’s exactly what I needed. And I found a great sense of purpose by training one.”

During an intermission, a Katy Perry song plays while everyone mingles, standing in small groups and chatting, or seated at round tables in easy conversation. If the inmates weren’t wearing blue and so heavily tattooed, and holding dogs on leashes, they’d be indistinguishable from the others.

According to Kaylee Latimer, the nonprofit’s prison and college clubs program manager, based on data from prison program liaisons, Canine Companions estimates the recidivism rate for inmates who were puppy trainers is less than 5%. Overall, according to a 2024 report on the California Model program, 20% of people released from prison in 2018 were imprisoned again within three years.

That makes sense, says Greg Eskridge, 50, who has been in prison for 30 years, at San Quentin since 2012, and is to be paroled in August. One of the trainers invited him to today’s graduation.

“Absolutely. These dogs really changed the environment here in San Quentin. And when you begin to change the environment for the positive, it changes your thinking and it changes your behavior and it changes your heart,” Eskridge says. “For me, even though I’m not a handler, I’m witnessing this change in this environment. I’m witnessing people walk around prison with a very positive outlook. And so for myself, it’s definitely going to contribute to me getting out there and being successful and staying out there. Actually, I want a dog. I’ve never had a dog before in my life and I want a dog now.”