- PARTNERS: Before Mugsy entered the picture, Natalie Johnson was barely able to leave her house; today, they're inseparable.
It's not uncommon for an animal lover to say she was "rescued" by her dog, but Natalie Johnson has a stronger claim than most.
Twelve years ago, Johnson was tending bar at the American Legion in downtown Little Rock when a man walked in with a gun. Johnson complied with his demands for money, but he shot her anyway — and pistol-whipped her so severely she lost vision in one eye as a result of the head trauma. He turned out to be a repeat violent offender who had been released from state prison months earlier.
"I was a survivor of domestic violence ... and that was the breaking point," Johnson recalled recently. "It was just a game changer. ... I had to go on disability. I mean, I couldn't leave my house." The sight of the American Legion building — only blocks from her apartment at the time — would bring the memories back again.
"Moving helped," she said, "but things didn't really start to change, and I didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, until Paws in Prison came along and brought Mugsy into my life."
Mugsy, a 6-year-old boxer/Lab mix trained as a service animal, has been by Johnson's side for about 4-and-a-half years. He's also the runner up in the Arkansas Times' Greatest Dog contest. He now accompanies Johnson almost everywhere in public, serving as friend, guardian and emotional bulwark against post-traumatic stress.
"I went through a lot of ups and down trying to find my courage and my power again," Johnson said. "He helped me. He just really did save me. I'm not sure that I'd still be here, you know?"
Mugsy is one of about a thousand dogs that have graduated from the Paws in Prison program since it began in 2011, according to director Victoria Vander Schilden. Six rescue organizations provide the dogs. The Arkansas Department of Correction provides the trainers, in the form of a corps of prison inmates trained by professional instructors.
To participate, inmates must have had no behavioral infractions for one year, no history of animal abuse or cruelty and at least a year left on their sentence. For eight to 10 weeks, the dogs live alongside their inmate-trainers virtually around the clock. They learn basic commands while becoming better socialized with both humans and other dogs — in other words, more adoptable. The rescue organizations then work to pair the pups with adoptive families. Equipped with their new obedience training, most quickly find homes.
The program benefits the inmates as well, Vander Schilden said. "Not only do they get a job skill for successful reentry — if they're going to get out — but they improve their social skills and their self-esteem. They have to keep a daily journal of their dog's progress, and that helps with their writing ability." (Those journals are passed on to whomever adopts the dog.)
Each animal typically has two inmate-trainers who alternate duties. "We try to pair them with someone who they wouldn't normally interact with ... so it teaches them teamwork and also to get outside that comfort zone," she said.
Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the ADC, said participating in Paws in Prison "gives these inmates hope."
"When you see an inmate cry because his dog is getting adopted, it does something to you," he said. "This big, sometimes burly, tattooed inmate getting choked up because that dog is going to a good home. Or you see that inmate beam with pride talking about the tricks they teach."
There are about 90 inmate-trainers spread across six prison units, Vander Schilden said, along with a handful of additional "babysitters" who watch dogs when both their trainers are occupied. But the benefits of the program spread beyond its direct participants.
"I mean, dogs just make people happy. When the staff ... and the other inmates get to see the dogs, that's something that changes the environment in a positive way," she said.
Ashley Younger, the director of Little Rock-based CARE for Animals, said Paws in Prison helps her rescue organization find homes for shelter dogs that were likely bound for euthanization. Not every animal is well suited for the correctional environment, so CARE first performs a behavioral assessment to see if a dog is Paws in Prison material.
"The ones I won't send in are very shy, timid, nervous dogs," Younger said. "But you have perfectly smart, sweet dogs who are just young and hyper. ... That training can make that animal significantly more marketable."
The organization charges a $250 adoption fee for Paws in Prison dogs, which covers a portion of the cost of veterinary bills and sterilization. (A list of adoptable animals can be viewed at careforanimals.org.)
Mugsy was rescued from the Little Rock Animal Village in 2013, when he was just over a year old. Andrea Salsberry, a professional trainer, quickly recognized him as being unusually intelligent, calm and attentive. She steered him into the Paws in Prison program at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern, where she was training inmates at the time.
Months later, at her sister's suggestion, Johnson came searching for a service dog. She recalls the day vividly.
"They just set me down in the middle of the cafeteria, and the warden and Andrea and some administrators were in chairs against the wall. The inmates would come to an entry door and they would just let the dogs loose. I met three German Shepherds who were real stoic, and a little too serious for my personality. ... And then in bounds Mugsy, and he's just, like, so full of energy — he tackled me, licking my face. I could hear Andrea say from a distance, 'Well, I think that's going to be the one.' "
Salsberry remembers the scene as well. "It's just one of those wonderful, stories, because he was a throwaway dog ... found wandering, belonging to nobody, and I think he has changed her life."
(Paws in Prison stopped training service dogs a few years ago, Vander Schilden said, because doing so requires such a large investment in a single animal. That meant fewer slots available for the long list of "normal" rescue dogs. The 39 dogs enrolled in the program as of July 9 are destined to be family pets, not working dogs. Paws in Prison operates on a budget of about $60,000, almost all of which comes from private donations.)
The irony isn't lost on Johnson that Mugsy, who has been so instrumental to her recovery, was trained by prisoners. She's met several of the inmate-trainers herself, she said.
"At first my anxiety was through the roof," she said. "But once I [met them], and I could see how they were with the dogs, oh, my gosh. ... As a survivor of violent crime, it just made me feel so good that they had found a way to give back. One of them was a lifer ... so he'll never see the light of freedom again, but here he is in there doing this wonderful work."
"All the dogs, you know, are rescues. So it's a huge program about second chances — for the dog, for the inmate and for people like me."