Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- You can teach an old dog new tricks, and a bill in the Montana Legislature would expand a dog-training program that lets inmates be the teachers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced House Bill 941 Thursday morning, which would give Montana inmates in prisons time to relax, learn new skills and work with pups. 

The bill passed the House by a wide margin and the Senate committee approved the program, but came up against one outstanding problem Thursday: Paying for it. 

Rep. Gregory Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, is the sponsor of the bill, which would expand a dog training program in the Montana Women’s Prison to all prisons in the state or contracted with Montana. The program in Billings is called Prison Paws. Inmates teach dogs everything they need to know -- to sit, stay, walk on a leash, meet new people and dogs and more. 

Frazer said the program would be mutually beneficial for dogs, inmates, prison officers and communities surrounding prisons.

“​​The end goal is to provide them with the most amount of tools and resources so that when they get out, they don't create another victim. So this is just one more piece, one more cog in that machine, to help make sure that when they get out, you know, they can be as successful as possible,” Frazer said. 

Proponents of the bill said the program would help give inmates an internalized sense of control and reduce rates of depression and recidivism among current and former inmates. Dr. Marie Suthers is a veterinarian, the chair of the anthrozoology department at Carroll College and a founding member of a similar dog training program in Virginia’s prisons. She studies the effects of programs like these, and says they’re invaluable to the rehabilitation of inmates. 

Greg Larkins lives in Deer Lodge. He said life there is tense, especially for those working in the prison. He said a program like this might help residents working in the prison cut through some of that tension, find common ground with inmates and build better relationships with them. 

“I have a niece, a nephew, and dozens and dozens of friends such as Representative Frazer who work out there in horrendously, understaffed, overcrowded conditions. That place is a powder keg, just waiting for a spark to set it off, putting my family members and dozens of my close friends at great risk or peril,” Larkins said. “House Bill 941’s dog obedience training programs’ participants will have to be on their best behavior, both on the job and in the prison setting to get into and remain in this program. So any program that will reduce the inmates' likelihood of having violations for misbehavior or bad treatment of prison staff helps our officers come home to their families after a long, hard shift.” 

There weren’t any opponents of the bill, but this late in the legislative session, the discussion is all about money. For the most part, the state’s budget for the next two years is set, there’s not a lot of loose money hanging around for dog training. 

According to the bill, the program would cost Montana just less than $500,000 from the general fund over the next two years. Senators on the committee asked what would happen if the committee charged with appropriations didn’t put any money toward the program. Frazer said it’s something he’s passionate about and he’d be willing to work with the Department of Corrections and nonprofits across the state to get it off the ground. 

The committee amended the bill to allocate less money to the program. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a vote of 10-1.