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article imagePrisoners, problem pooches help each other in Hungary jail

By Peter MURPHY (AFP)     Apr 29, 2016 in World

Friday is dog day at Hungary's Debrecen jail as Sergey, Cutie, Scottie, Tiny and Fatty, all abandoned canines from a nearby rescue home, happily lollop in for obedience training... with the inmates.

Launched in 2014, the innovative project is of mutual benefit, helping prisoners and pooches alike gain valuable social skills to help their reintroduction into society.

"Their two fates are very similar. They help each other develop on their own paths," says Annamaria Nagy, a trainer with a local dog school, as she watches the odd couples interact.

"Let the lead out a little!" she shouts, watching one of the five prisoners navigate his dog through training cones in the basement of this prison in eastern Hungary.

During the seven-week programme, the inmates -- some of whom are in for violent crime themselves -- work on 10 tasks with the animals like discipline, avoiding fights and accepting a muzzle.

Launched in 2014  the innovative project is of mutual benefit  helping prisoners and pooches alike g...
Launched in 2014, the innovative project is of mutual benefit, helping prisoners and pooches alike gain valuable social skills to help their reintroduction into society.
Peter Kohalmi, AFP

Sergey and co., a family of Caucasian sheepdog mongrels -- floppy-eared with clever eyes and honey-coloured tufts sprouting from their heads -- were found abandoned and shivering in a forest in November.

"It was difficult to even approach them," recalls Agnes Nyuzo, the school's behavioural specialist. "They desperately needed to be socialised."

The project applies a technique developed in Hungary called the mirror method. This puts the onus on the trainer to correct their own mistakes rather than the dogs, who only "mirror" what they see.

Deliberately chosen for their extra difficulties -- people don't want to adopt mongrels, says Nagy -- just a few weeks into the latest course the dogs have already formed strong bonds with the inmates, bounding over to see them as soon as they enter.

The feeling is mutual.

"It does wonders for me, and him, I feel good for days after," says Roland, a prisoner, as he strokes and cuddles Cutie after managing to fix a muzzle on.

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Peter Kohalmi, AFP

"We don't know and we don't ask what the inmates did to get in here, all we know is that we see them here being so helpful," says Nyuzo.

When one of the volunteers puts on a wolf's mask to present the dogs with a potential conflict situation, another prisoner, Laszlo, manages to distract and calm down a snarling Sergey.

"Sergey was the most aggressive of the family, but we're working on that," he says.

- Honest hounds -

Prison staff said that the prisoners, usually withdrawn, also relax their hackles.

One prisoner even adopted the dog he trained after leaving jail  says Vanda Olga Toro  a telecom com...
One prisoner even adopted the dog he trained after leaving jail, says Vanda Olga Toro, a telecom company employee and dog-lover who dreamt up the project after hearing about similar schemes in the United States.
Peter Kohalmi, AFP

"It helps them forget a little where they are, as well as break down their distrust. Dogs are more honest than humans," prison governor Sandor Peter Pancsusak tells AFP.

He said a prized slot on the programme, which has a long waiting list of inmates, strengthens or at least maintains a prisoner's existing positive characteristics.

"It helps them become more tolerant, understand others better and, ultimately, do better outside," he said while watching from a balcony as the prisoners return to their cells below.

To date, more than 30 of the jail's population of around 300 -- most of whom are in pre-trial detention for charges ranging from assaults to white-collar crime -- have completed the scheme.

No "graduate" has been involved in any conflict situation afterwards, prison staff told AFP.

One prisoner even adopted the dog he trained after leaving jail, says Vanda Olga Toro, a telecom company employee and dog-lover who dreamt up the project after hearing about similar schemes in the United States.

And so far, 12 out of 31 dogs who have completed the seven weeks and received a certificate of suitability for adoption have found new owners.

"The prisoners work miracles with them," Toro, 27, tells AFP at the "Together for Animals" shelter on the edge of Debrecen, which also feels like a prison of sorts.

Around 200 dogs and cats, abandoned or abused by owners and often missing data chips, are kept there behind bars in bleak concrete kennels.

The average stay is three to four years. "If they aren't cute, it can be six or seven years, more, before someone adopts them," says Toro.

A cacophony of barking breaks out when the dogs hear footsteps.

"When they go to the prison it's like a huge adventure for them, someone is paying them attention at last," she added.

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