Dogs behind bars

CALDWELL-Apocalypse sleeps on his own blue cot in a dormitory in Noble Correctional Institution. Though underweight while he recovers from a recent illness, the 3-year-old St. Bernard is still too large to be kenneled next to a bed like most of the 18 dogs staying in the Ohio prison.

Like all of the dogs in the prison’s Canine Care Program, Apocalypse is a rescue from the nearby Guernsey County Dog Shelter.

“Usually (the shelter) brings us dogs that have been in the shelter a while so they don’t have to be euthanized,” said Joel Burris, correction warden assistant at the prison.

Around 40 inmates participate in the Canine Care Program, acting as full-time caregivers for the dogs and providing them with basic obedience training to make them more desirable adoption candidates.

Apocalypse is the 75th dog that NCI inmate Kevin Harriman has trained since he started working with dogs in 1998 at Mansfield Correctional Institution.

“I’ve got pictures with all my dogs. There were 50 I trained at Mansfield and 25 so far here,” said Harriman proudly.

Apocalypse has been staying at the prison for a week and is already barking on command and shaking hands.

“It’s easier to adopt a dog who has already been trained,” said inmate Raymond Byrd.

Byrd is currently teaching Belgian Shepherd Matty the five basic commands: sit, down, stay, come and heel.

“We also teach them to auto sit,” said Byrd and then demonstrated with Matty quickly sitting by Byrd’s feet as soon as he stopped walking.

Byrd and Harriman act as trainers for the other inmates selected for the program.

Participation in the program is highly competitive, said Correctional Program Specialist Andrew Koscoe, who oversees Canine Care.

“I get applications daily,” he said.

Potential candidates start with a reading assignment and their interest is gaged by how seriously they take the assignment, said Byrd.

“What you put into a dog is what you’re going to get out of a dog,” he explained.

Since the NCI dog program started in 2000, approximately 550 dogs from the program have gone on to find homes, said Burris.

But the program is not only helping the dogs. It is a positive experience for the inmates as well, said NCI Warden Tim Buchanan.

“It’s one of those things that is meaningful for the offenders and has a genuine rehabilitation affect on them,” he said.

The program also costs nothing to the taxpayer, added Burris. The Guernsey County Dog Shelter pays food and vet bills for the animals and in turn receives the adoption fee once the animals find a home, he said.

Inmate Aaron Lawson has been working on training Deeohgee, a 10-month-old Labrador-Shepard mix with a lot of energy.

“A big part of training them is responsibility. You’re responsible for this dog 24/7,” he said.

Each dog typically has a primary and secondary handler responsible for feeding, watering and exercising the dogs.

The dogs that are small enough sleep in a kennel near a handler’s bunk and larger dogs like Apocalypse also sleep in the dorms.

“It teaches you a little more structure and discipline,” added Byrd.

The program is also an apprenticeship program, said Koscoe. Inmates who complete 4,288 hours in the program are eligible for an Animal Training certificate upon completion.

Byrd said he is genuinely interested in pursuing a career in animal training upon his release. It is a field where he feels he would meet less prejudice toward his incarceration.

“Working with animals, it’s a field where I don’t think people will be as likely to see you as a felon,” he said.

Some inmates have had success finding work in an animal related field after completing the program, said Konny Pickenpaugh, unit management chief at NCI.

“I’ve gotten calls from inmates saying ‘I was able to use my certificate to land a job in an animal shelter or start my own business,'” she said.

Joining the program gives offenders the opportunity to take prison and make it a positive experience, said Burris.

Pickenpaugh and Burris were two of the prison officials who initiated the program in 2000.

They picked up three dogs to get the program off the ground but were thrown a curve ball, recalled Burris.

“One of the dogs was pregnant, so it quickly went from three dogs to 11,” he said.

But in a way, the pregnancy and subsequent arrival of eight puppies at the facility helped sell the program.

“As soon as she had those puppies, everybody fell in love with the dog program. Everybody could not wait to come see them,” said Burris.

The personal growth the handlers experience as they work with their dogs more and more is evident, added Burris.

He recalled the program’s first ever handler, who was serving a potential life sentence and exhibiting behavioral issues before the dog program.

“You saw a night and day change in that inmate,” he said.

That inmate’s attitude change was one of the factors that contributed to his successful parole, added Pickenpaugh.

“You can either come into prison and make it a positive experience or you can sit and soak and (be) sour and come out disgruntled. This program gives offenders the chance to make it positive,” he said.