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Vet volunteers time at prison to help inmate dog trainers

Vet volunteers time at prison to help inmate dog trainers

March 4th, 2011 in News

Mandi Steele/FULTON SUN photo: Holts Summit veterinarian Mar Doering rewards Daisy with a treat after the dog obeys the vet's order to "leave it." Doering visits Jefferson City Correctional Center every other week to help inmates in the Puppies for Parole program with behavioral dog training.

Veterinarian Mar Doering holds a doggie treat tightly in her fist just in front of Daisy's nose.

"Off," she orders, "off." Daisy, a large, black, hound mix is not allowed to have the reward until she obeys by not trying to take the treat from Doering's hand. "Take it," the Holts Summit vet then orders and Daisy does.

Jeff Findley watches Doering work with Daisy on Tuesday, trying to learn the technique Doering calls "leave it." Findley will have plenty of time to work on the command with Daisy later. He's with Daisy almost 24 hours a day; the two are fenced in together, literally. Findley is an inmate at Jefferson City Correctional Center and Daisy is in his charge. Findley and his cellmate, Brad Adkins, share the responsibility of training Daisy through the prison's Puppies for Parole program.

Doering drives out to the prison every other week to spend a couple hours with the inmate dog trainers. She said she shows them some techniques they can work on to get the desired behaviors, but then the prisoners are the ones who put forth the real effort to get results.

"I don't want to take credit for anything. I'm just helping these guys to do what they're doing so great," Doering said.

Dr. Doering has had a practice in Holts Summit for almost 31 years - All Paws Medical and Behavioral Center.

"Since I was 4, since I knew what a veterinarian was, it was the only thing I've ever wanted to be," she said.

Following her dream, Doering has not only been involved with the medical health of animals, but the behavioral health as well.

"I believe in the behavioral work so, so much," she said. "It makes such a difference in people's lives to know that their animal is part of the family and a healthy, happy member of the family ... So many pets are euthanized every year because their behaviors are just not what people want."

Her love for behavior training is what lead her to JCCC. When she heard that Missouri had started the Puppies for Parole program in some of its correctional centers, she knew she wanted to be involved.

"The reason I was interested in this program is because they are adopting animals from the shelter that in most cases have been brought there either because people could not care for them or because their behaviors, or certainly medical issues, were not working out," Doering said.

George Lombardi, director of Missouri Department of Corrections, said Puppies for Parole has saved many dogs from being euthanized since the dogs shelters usually choose for the program "are dogs that are having a difficult time being adopted out."

"That's where the prison system is making such a difference," Doering said. "They're taking dogs that maybe would not be adoptable and helping them through having people that are with them 24 hours a day to make them adoptable."

Promoting good behavior on all sides

Travis Stipe said one of the reasons he likes being a part of Puppies for Parole is knowing it keeps the dogs from being euthanized.

Stipe, who trains a spotted dalmation-mix puppy named Bailey, said he's been in prison for 15 years. He shakes his head in disbelief as he says, "I can't believe this happened in prison."

Bailey is the fifth dog Stipe has helped train. The tattooed inmate, wearing a gray prison uniform, seems perfectly satisfied for Bailey to sit in his lap and lay her head on his leg. Stipe's had the puppy for two weeks. She has presented him with a few challenges, because she's deaf. Stipe said he learned a few different signs to show her to help with the training process. When he signs for her to sit, she obeys and he rewards her with a treat.

His reason for joining the program is simple: "I like dogs," he said. Then he adds, "It gives me a reason to stay out of trouble."

Offenders who choose to be a part of the program must live in the "honor wing" of a "house" section of the prison, state DOC officials, meaning they recieve no prison violations for at least a year. They also cannot have any offenses of animal cruelty or abuse on their records.

Kevin Appleby II came to Doering's training session Tuesday dogless. His first question to Cindy Wansing, business manager at JCCC, was when he might expect to get another dog.

"I really want one," Appleby said, saying he hasn't had one in his charge since Patches, a border collie that was adopted just before Christmas.

Appleby and his former cellmate, Jayme Guinn, said they enjoyed teaching Patches all sorts of tricks and were anxious for another dog to be brought to their "house" - their section of the correctional center.

Wansing assured Appleby and Guinn the next dog the shelter brings would come to their house. Wansing works as a liaison between JCCC and Jefferson City Animal Shelter, the shelter which brings dogs to the facility to be trained.

"A dog just brings on a good spirit," Guinn says, referring to why he likes having a four-legged friend around.

"It really helps the time go by," Appleby adds. "You're doing something. That helps more than anything in here."

He also said it's nice to help someone else, knowing the trained dogs will eventually be adopted. Although letting go of the dog isn't always easy. He spent four months with Patches, who stayed in his cell except for outside trips, bathroom breaks, feeding time and training sessions. Appleby said Patches' departure was "bittersweet."

"It made me feel proud I could bring that joy into someone else's house," he said.

Since a "house" shares an outside yard area, all the offenders in the house get to know each canine that stays there. Kimathi Lewis said even the hardened criminals warm up to the dogs.

"In my opinion they're real good therapy," Lewis said.

Michael Jenkins said training Bubba, a thin, black dog full of energy, has given him "a sense of responsibility I wouldn't have otherwise." Having an end goal of preparing the pets for others is a good feeling, Jenkins said.

"Our goal is to find them a forever home," he said.

Living the dream

Puppies for Parole is operating in 12 prisons statewide and DOC officials state 214 dogs have been adopted since its inception. The first program in Missouri started at JCCC in February of 2010. Animals who go through the program are adopted through the shelters, and Missouri's DOC website shows which dogs are available for adoption. Dogs are usually kept at the correctional centers for 6-8 weeks but can be kept until they are adopted or returned to the shelter. Wansing said there have been up to 38 inmates at JCCC involved with the program at a time, which would be 19 dogs at the center.

Tuesday, Doering worked with 10 offenders and five dogs in the visitor area of JCCC. She continued to instruct the men on how to teach their charges the "leave it" command. Placing items a couple feet away from each other on the cement floor, she then asked the men to walk the dogs down the row where she had placed the objects. If your dog goes for the item, tug on the leash to instruct them to "leave it," she said.

Doering explained that some of the dogs that go through the program will be trained as therapy dogs. So simple requests like "fetch" can later be turned into important commands for owners such as fetching a bottle of pills or a purse. She says her work in the behavioral field is nothing short of a dream come true.

"I love it more than anything I've ever done. I think it's why I was put on this earth, to do the behavioral work," she said with a smile.

To make a donation or to see dogs available for adoption, visit the Puppies for Parole program online at http://doc.mo.gov/.