MONROE — Wayne Anderson didn’t mind cramming a dog crate into his tiny prison cell at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
In truth, the convicted murderer signed up for the honor.
For the past eight weeks, Anderson participated in a program where inmates helped train rescued dogs, to see if the animals could serve people with disabilities.
Anderson’s dog — a black-and-brown mutt named Ellie — didn’t make the cut. She was a bit too willful. Instead, his training may help the one-time stray find a home as a pet.
“She made me look good,” said Anderson, 45. “She’s really smart.”
The program at the Monroe Correctional Complex graduated its first class of dogs Wednesday. Eight inmates worked with four dogs, helping determine if the animals had the spark needed to perform specialized skills, like taking off a person’s shoes and picking up a phone.
Susan Biller, an administrative assistant at the prison, served as the program’s lead coordinator. She was at first doubtful it could work in Monroe, the state’s largest prison.
“I got to tell you, I was thinking, ‘Dogs in prison? Really?’ ” she said.
Still, she knew prisons such as the Washington State Penitentiary had similar programs.
After winning approval from Monroe Superintendent Scott Frakes, she reached out to Summit Assistance Dogs, an Anacortes nonprofit that trains and places service dogs with those in need.
The nonprofit’s founder leapt at the idea. Sue Meinzinger said she has wanted to start a prison program for a decade.
The inmates can dedicate hours of one-on-one time to the animals. That’s valuable. Only about 25 percent of dogs have the necessary skills to become service dogs. Summit wants to find those animals.
Meinzinger also sees benefits for inmates, since the vast majority will one day re-enter society.
“Providing rehabilitative programs is much more of an answer than locking them up and having them continue with their antisocial behaviors,” she said.
Summit agreed to shoulder the program’s financial costs, using grants and donations to cover expenses such as dog food and trainers.
Prison officials, meanwhile, worked out organizational issues.
Inmates without disciplinary problems were selected to work with the animals. A yard was set aside to give the animals a place to go the bathroom. And dog trainers were brought in twice a week to help the inmates.
Now that the first class of dogs has graduated, many at the prison are praising the program.
Frakes said he would like to see it expand.
“This is a huge facility,” he said. “I think the sky’s the limit.”
The four mutts in the first class at Monroe likely won’t become service animals. Fiona showed some promise, but is a bit territorial. Piper could make the cut as a drug dog, but probably won’t work with the disabled.
Prison officials emphasized the program’s upsides — the fact that it requires inmates to show responsibility and patience, for example.
Still, the program has a downside for inmates. They have to see their dogs leave after eight weeks.
That was difficult for Anderson, who began his term in 1988 and won’t see release until 2016.
Ellie moved in with him and his cellmate, Howard Banks, on May 18. Like other dogs in the program, she slept in a crate when the men weren’t taking her outside on a prison-approved schedule for walks or lessons.
Anderson was sorry to see Ellie leaving. He spent some time on Wednesday morning alone with the brown-eyed dog, saying goodbye.
“Any of the guys that tell you they’re not emotionally attached, and it’s not going to affect them, they’re either lying or they’re dead inside,” he said.
Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455; firstname.lastname@example.org.