Wednesday, 28 December 2011 16:32

Dogs enter local prison, emerge as good citizens

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BY TANYA IRWIN-BLADE STAFF WRITER

Two Toledo Correctional inmates shown training a dog
Toledo Correctional Institution inmates Frankie Robinson, left, and Jason Schmidt work with Moose, a boxer, at a canine training session of Prisoners Helping Dogs

OHIO - When you meet Pudgie, a resident of the Lucas County Dog Warden's pound who is looking for a home, it quickly becomes obvious there's something different about him.

While many of the other dogs bark and jump excitedly when spoken to, he's calm. It's as if he's waiting to hear what you have to say. He wants to know if you want him to sit, stay, come, heel, or perhaps "Give me five."

The handsome shepherd has something that sets him apart from many of the dogs waiting for new homes at the pound. He is one of the first four graduates of the pound's "Ph.D." program. Ph.D. stands for Prisoners Helping Dogs, and as part of the program Pudgie lived for six weeks at the Toledo Correctional Institution, where he was trained by prisoners David Brody and John Spirko.

All of the dogs in the program have a primary and secondary trainer so that they are attended to at all times. Brody, who was Pudgie's primary trainer, says he misses him, even though he has moved on to training a new dog.

"He taught me patience," said Brody, 41, who is serving a 17-year sentence for armed burglary. "He was real stubborn and bull-headed, but he turned out great."

Spirko, 65, who was Pudgie's secondary trainer, echoes Brody's thoughts about the now well-mannered dog.

"He taught me companionship," said Spirko, who is serving a life sentence for aggravated murder.

Dog Warden Julie Lyle, who meets twice a week with the dogs and their trainers, said many of the dogs chosen for the program are ones that might be passed over by potential adopters walking through the kennels.

They have cosmetic problems -- they are black dogs, big dogs -- or, in Pudgie's case, they are carrying a little extra weight.

"Sometimes they are simply unmannered," Ms. Lyle said. "The behavior difference between when they go and when they come back is dramatic -- and wonderful."

Three of the first four graduates have already been adopted, but Pudgie is still waiting.

Toledo coerrections officer petting a dog named Pudgie while an inmate is holding it

Guard Peter Kimball pets Pacino, whose leash is being held by Toledo Correctional Institution inmate David Brody, during a session in the Prisoners Helping Dogs program. Seated is inmate John Spirko, holding the leash of Chrissy, the dog he is training.

Besides learning basic obedience, the dogs that come back from the prison program are the ones that the pound knows the most about from a behavior standpoint. "We know if they are housebroken; we know how they are in crates," Ms. Lyle said.

Having more information available about the dogs helps the pound find the best match for them when potential adopters come to call.

Ms. Lyle said she would like to eventually expand the program from the current four dogs to six or possibly eight. During a recent training session at the prison, Ms. Lyle showed the prisoners how to teach their dogs the "leave it" command, which comes in handy if the dog is going after something it shouldn't have.

The dog-trainer program serves as an incentive for good behavior to the prisoners, said Lt. Peter Kimball, who serves as its supervisor at Toledo Correctional.

No sex offenders are allowed to participate, and the chosen prisoners are ones who have exhibited "model" behavior, Lieutenant Kimball said.

The program started in February with minimum-security inmates at the institution's prison camp. But the program ended prematurely after Gov. John Kasich unveiled his $55.5 billion plan that closed four state prison camps, including Toledo's.

Now the program is using close-security inmates such as Spirko, who was convicted in the 1982 kidnapping and multiple stabbing of Betty Jane Mottinger, who was postmaster in Elgin in Van Wert County.

Spirko, who was on death row before then-Gov. Ted Strickland commuted his sentence to life in prison, previously worked with pound dogs at Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg.

Dog warden July Lyle holding graduating dog named Pudgie

Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle shakes the paw of Pudgie, a graduate of the Prisoners Helping Dogs program who is available for adoption. 

 
There are more than four dozen programs at correctional facilities across Ohio. Many involve training the dogs to assist people with disabilities.

The majority of the programs involve private rescue groups or humane societies. The Lucas County program is unique because it involves pound dogs.

Maj. Gary Parker, chief of security at the Toledo prison, suggested the training program to Ms. Lyle after having seen similar dog-inmate initiatives at other prisons.

"The inmates at Toledo Correctional Institution are providing a valuable service in hopes that the dogs will get a second chance of finding a loving home," Major Parker said.

"The inmates take a lot of pride in working with the dogs."


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