Pa. ó Joe has trained 21 dogs during his stay at the
State Correctional Institution at Mercer. This week, he
is saying goodbye to the latest one, Tonka, a wiggly
white Lab-terrier mix with a pink nose.
eight weeks, six dogs enter the minimum-security prison
and are assigned to two inmates who are trained to
prepare them for successful adoption.
a five-year relationship with Strayhaven Animal Shelter
in Greenville, Pa., in Mercer County, SCI-Mercer has
taken 122 dogs, and all but one have been adopted. Many
come in with behavioral issues, but their better
personalities emerge during the training.
staff members say the same thing about the men ó whose
last names and crimes are not included in this story in
an agreement with prison officials.
is definitely a reward for someone whoís locked
up," said Gregory, whose current dog is Ooglie, a
5-year-old shepherd mix. "She was taken to
Strayhaven by her family, so she was rejected. A lot of
dogs come from broken homes, a lot are abandoned. Itís
good to see their personalities come out" when they
have a buddy. "Some days, it doesnít feel like Iím
locked up when Iím working with a dog."
prisons, in Pennsylvania and nationwide, pair shelter
dogs with inmates. The programs are called by different
names and train dogs for different skills, including
service to people with special needs, said Lisa Graves,
the director of the program at Mercer. Mercerís
program with Strayhaven is called Canine Adoptive Rescue
Endeavor, or CARE.
Mercer partnership relieves the animal shelter of
overcrowding and improves its flow of adoptions, said
Jennifer McCurdy, manager at Strayhaven. The training
the inmates provide is a star on the status of a dog
that has been hard to place, she said.
their adoptions, the dogs at Mercer are tested for basic
discipline like sitting, staying, disposition on leash
and anxiety when the owner leaves.
a recent test, training instructor Katie Costello
approached Midna, a sleek black hound mix with a brown
mask, and Ron, her primary handler. She patted Midna,
shook hands with Ron and ran a comb over Midnaís back.
She summoned Graves and Randy Rickert, a staff
counselor, to walk toward them, like extras in a crowd
scene, to test Midnaís self-possession.
her stay and walk away," Costello said, and Ron
said "Stay!" and walked away. He hid behind a
desk. Time passed and the dog looked at Costello. She
looked around the room. She put the dogís front paws
on a chair to look out the window. No Ron there. Then
the dog sniffed the clipboard and sat down. When Ron
emerged from behind the desk, Midnaís tail flipped
like the rotor of a helicopter.
tricks are the fun accomplishments of having time to do
it. Joe gets Tonka to roll over using hand signals and
treats. Midna can do an air pirouette, which she
demonstrated one day in a fenced play area outside.
Juan, Midnaís other handler, and Aaron, who co-trained
a shepherd-mix named Sky, were playing keep away with
the two dogs. As the dogs ran toward Juan, he called out
"three sixty!" and Midna leaped and twirled.
so incredibly impressed with what these guys do,"
said Costello. "As we get close to graduation day,
you can see their sense of worth. Itís definitely a
STORY CAN END HERE)
was days from his release when Midna took her test.
Playing with her beforehand, he placed a liver treat on
his knee, his hand in the air, as Midna sat very still,
inches away. When he gave the signal, she grabbed the
treat and Ron kissed the top of her head.
is my third dog and sheís been my favorite," he
said. "She sleeps with me in my bunk."
said he would love to adopt her but canít because he
is moving into a halfway house.
his and Juanís cell, the hound spends part of her day
in a crate at the foot of the bunk beds. The men have
tacked photos of all the dogs they have trained on a
bulletin board on the wall.
a 7-year-old shepherd mix, came to the prison needing
behavioral correction and has since stopped getting into
the garbage and begging, said Paul, her primary handler.
like older dogs for the challenge," he said.
"Iím here to serve my time, but this gives me
another purpose. It also helps with my (post-traumatic
stress disorder), so Iím very grateful.
taken her to PTSD sessions and she makes the other guys
more relaxed, right baby?" he said, caressing Starís
neck and rubbing her head with his forehead.
program should be at every jail," said Joe, whose
pink-nosed Tonka nuzzled his leg. "It gives the
guys a sense of pride, it makes us better people and weíre
helping these animals."
thereís always the hard part ó saying goodbye to a
friend who has lived with you, is always crazy to see
you and who looks you in the eye the way dogs always do
and humans often donít.
fall in love with every single one of them," Joe
said. "Thatís the blessing in reverse."
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