San Diego County jails have a common and troubling problem: too many inmates, too few jailers.
During a typical shift at the Descanso honor farm, about 10 sheriff's deputies watch more than 400 inmates. At the Las Colinas Jail in Santee, about 30 deputies and corrections officers oversee more than 1,000 male and female inmates.
To help even the odds, the Sheriff's Department has put some furry, four-legged friends on the job. The specially trained German shepherds last month began making rounds with deputies at the Las Colinas and Descanso jails.
Most of the county's potentially dangerous inmates are sent to other facilities, and the dogs are stationed in Descanso and Santee partly for crowd control, said Mel Nichols, the county's commander of jail operations.
"When it's 1 to 75 or so, every little bit helps," he said.
Nichols hopes the animals will also excel at another part of their job description: hunting down escaped inmates in the rural areas around the two jails.
During the first six months of this year, there were three escapes and two attempted escapes at Las Colinas, Nichols said.
Although no one escaped from Descanso during the first half of this year, one inmate tried to escape the first day the dogs were on duty in July, Nichols said. Officials did not have an opportunity to test the dogs' tracking ability, however, since the inmate was apprehended before he made it over the fence.
"We haven't really had an opportunity to put the dogs to use," said Ray Root, an administrative supervisor at Descanso. "We don't know what the effect will be."
No other county in California uses dogs to assist jailers, but San Diego's experiment with the animals might lead others to try them as well, Nichols said.
"A lot of people, particularly in Southern California, are watching this to see how it works out," he said.
Neil Zinn, a field representative for the State Board of Corrections, agreed.
"We want to see whether or not it can make a difference," Zinn said. "San Diego County is plagued with chronic overcrowding and understaffing. . . . It could be that San Diego County is looking for a psychological edge over its inmates."
Sheriff's officials think they have that edge with the dogs.
Christine Mills, one of the dog handlers at Las Colinas, said inmates have given her a wide berth since she started patrolling with Argo, a 70-pound shepherd who stands about 5 feet tall on his hind legs.
"When they see the dog, the movement stops," Mills said. "They're very leery of the dog. And they're very good about getting out of the way."
That's just the effect deputies were hoping for.
They are also hoping that the dogs will provide peace of mind for nearby residents, particularly at Las Colinas.
Some Santee residents protested vehemently before and after the men's section of Las Colinas opened last year.
"The citizens of Santee had a concern about another jail going into their neighborhood," said Clay Reynard, program director at Las Colinas. "We hope the dogs will be a large deterrent."
But a spokesman for the city said the new sentries probably won't be enough to completely quell community concerns.
"There were several issues," said Bill Adams, the city's public information officer. "One of the main issues was public safety, and anything that can enhance public safety would be welcomed."
For now, only three dogs are working at each facility, Nichols said.
The dogs cost about $3,500 each; the total budget for this year's program is about $39,000, he said. Funding for the program came from money seized in drug raids.
"We've been trying to get this in effect for the past four years," Nichols said. "We didn't really have the money in the normal budget process."
He was reluctant to discuss expanding the use of dogs.
"Next fiscal year--we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Nichols said.