Mt Pleasant News

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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 21, 2018

A doggone good program

Correctional facility dog training program gives dogs, inmates chance at a better life
Jan 15, 2018
Photo by: Grace King John Mohr works to train Ox, who came to Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility with sores all over his body. Now in the facility, Ox no longer shows signs of anxiety. Because Ox is deaf, Mohr is working to teach him sign commands.

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


Garth Truax has just been hired as an alternate dog handler at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility. An inmate, Traux sees this job as an opportunity to change his life. If he makes his position as alternate dog handler a priority, he soon could find himself training a dog of his own. As he watched the other inmate dog handlers correct their dogs’ behavior or show them some love, he gushed about how lucky he felt to be accepted into the exclusive program.

“These dogs are just like us,” Truax said. “Cast out.”

There are currently eight inmates who work as dog handlers for the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility (MPCF) Dog Training Program, which was launched in May 2017. Andrea Wright, executive officer at the facility, was visiting programs at other prisons when she was inspired to launch a dog training program in Mt. Pleasant. She reached out to PAWS Animal Shelter, who enthusiastically agreed to partner with the facility.

“It’s a win-win for the facility, for the inmates, for us, and it’s definitely a win for the dogs,” said Sandy Brown, director of PAWS in Ft. Madison.

PAWS themselves receives what Brown calls dogs “nobody else wants, bottom of the barrel,” ill-mannered behavioral dogs — but she doesn’t blame the dogs for their temperament. “The only thing wrong with the dogs here is the people who owned them,” she said.

Of those dogs they receive, the ones that are the most unadoptable are the ones sent to the facility where they are given the opportunity to be trained to provide assistance, service, therapy or companionship for citizens. The dogs and their handlers are given six weeks to learn the commands of “sit,” “stay,” “kennel,” “leave it,” “loose leash” and recall.”

When Wright was first introduced to the program, she was more passionate about helping animals who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance at adoption. Now, she says it bridges a gap with inmates too.

“In the program, we have a guy who committed murder,” Wright said. “I saw how good it was at getting dogs adopted, but I didn’t think about the way it would affect the inmates.” It teaches compassion, friendship and self-discovery of what you are capable of doing.”

Wright said that one of the inmates, who had served two tours in Afghanistan, was suffering from PTSD. He was “shut down and depressed,” but he was interested in the dog training program. Before receiving a dog to train, he wouldn’t even go out into the yard, but suddenly, he had to. He had to take care of it, take it outside, play with it and train it.

“That sold me on the other side of it,” she said.

Joshua Lyons is currently training his fifth dog of the program, Scout. As Lyons introduced Scout, the dog jumped up from the floor and started wiggling around to take in everything that was going on around him.

“Yeah, we’re talking about you,” Lyons said to Scout as he attempted to calm a dog he says is the most energetic he has ever trained. “He goes from zero to 100 real quick.”

The dogs are only with their handlers for a short amount of time, but during that time, the animals never leave their trainers’ sides. Lyons has learned that the dogs are really smart and have taught him patience and staying consistent in his reactions to their behavior. When he receives a new dog, it’s about learning their different quirks, teaching them the same commands, but adapting to their personalities.

“Scout would make an amazing hunting dog,” Lyons said as Scout rolled over to allow his handler to pet his belly.

Scout isn’t even the most difficult case Lyon has been handed. Although handlers don’t necessarily know a dog’s entire history, they can tell by the way they interact with the world what they’ve been through. Lyons said his last dog was probably kept in a kennel a lot and was beaten. He came to Lyons with his tail between his legs, scared of his own shadow.

But the story doesn’t end there. After graduating from the dog training program, he was adopted by a 17-year-old boy in Iowa City.

Training dog after dog to see them adopted gives the inmates hope, but it can also be a sad transition. When it came time to graduate his first dog from the program, Lyons said it was difficult. Now, he views himself as more of a therapist.

“I separate myself from that aspect,” he said.

Mark Jackson has been training his dog Cash for two weeks. By now, he knows that the American-bulldog mix is smart, intelligent and takes a lot of patience. Even though Cash is not even halfway through the program, Jackson knows it will hurt to say goodbye to another dog he trained.

John Mohr feels the same way, but said even though they are giving the dog up, there is a reward in knowing a dog they trained was adopted and is going to a good home.

Mohr has a challenge ahead of him with his current dog Ox. Ox is deaf, and when he was at the shelter, he would lick himself raw from stress.

Now in the facility, Ox’s sores have healed under Mohr’s care. Mohr calls Ox a gentle giant with big muscles, but a “cuddle-bug.” He has been teaching Ox sign language, demonstrating how the dog can follow the seven basic commands. In fact, Mohr was having a conversation the other day when Ox interrupted, wanting his handler’s attention. Mohr simply put up his palm, motioning for Ox to quiet down and the dog sat patiently.

Mohr learned that trick from one of the class sessions the men sit in every Thursday morning to gain training skills. He said they watch a lot of Cesar Millan videos, a behaviorist with 25 years of canine experience and his own TV series, “Dog Whisperer.”

As Brandon Madren ignored his dog Charlie’s whining, he explained that acknowledging the bad behavior reinforces the idea that the dogs are given attention through that behavior — something he learned from class. Introducing Charlie, he said that the dog might have come to the shelter as a stray. He often squirrels away food and is very afraid of anything that rolls. He’s starting to come out of his shyness, however, and already has learned “sit,” “stay,” and “shake” in his first week at the facility.

“He’s still working on getting over his fears,” Madren said, adding that Charlie pees on the floor a lot. “He’s been really good for a while. We went five days without any accident.”

Madren said the most difficult part of correcting a dog isn’t necessarily working with the dog, but with the other people’s opinions who aren’t in the training program. “Everyone has their own opinion in how to do it,” he said. “You hear people say some crude stuff.”

“Everyone’s an expert,” Mohr agreed, but the handlers stand by their experience working with their dogs.

Wright said that part of the challenge of the program is dealing with other inmates who aren’t as comfortable or happy being exposed to ill-mannered animals. “Not everyone in the facility is a dog lover,” she said.

Wright is very picky about the inmates she lets into the program, saying she has a stack of applications on her desk, but it takes more than wanting a dog to be eligible. Handlers cannot have a history of abuse or cruelty to animals or have violated a correctional facility rule within the last 90 days. Wright also will remove a handler from their position if they have inadequate work performance.

Out of the 20 dogs that have been through the program at the MPCF, 15 of them have been adopted. This is not counting the dogs currently in the program. Brown is overwhelmed by the impact the handlers have had on getting these animals adopted.

When she visits the facility, she said, “Oh I cry, and I am not a cryer. We go and observe and sing [the handlers] praises. This is such a great program for the dogs. It gives them a chance at a better life.

“It also helps the correctional facility,” she continued. “Dogs are healing and dogs will never tell on you. It gives inmates a purpose and someone to care for and someone to care about them.”

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