It dawned on me earlier that a growing number of my readers are overseas in places like China, Europe, or Central and South America, and incarceration there is very different from here in the United States. As far as I know, only countries in Europe have the type of program I’m going to tell you about.
In the U.S., many prisons have a dog program where inmates train shelter rescue dogs or dogs that will specialize in helping the disabled (such as guide dogs). These programs offer a way for offenders to give back to local communities, and they provide a valuable service to those in need. Inmates learn a tangible skill, and the presence of dogs within the institutional environment has a calming effect on prisoners. For state corrections, these programs are valued both for their PR and for their practicality.
Here, we have two types of dog programs. One trains local shelter rescue dogs for adoption, and the other provides daycare, boarding, and training services for dogs owned by staff. In the rescue program, the local shelter sends us dogs as they receive them, and inmates who train them receive no compensation. Staff that bring their pets into the Staff Dog Program pay a daily fee, and the inmates involved in the program make a percentage of this fee.
I spent 10 years as a volunteer training dogs in the shelter rescue program. I’ve trained somewhere between 50-60 dogs, as training usually takes two to three months per animal. The experience is therapeutic and rewarding.
Training rescue dogs consists of commands like “sit,” “stay,” “come,” “down,” “off,” “sit-stay,” “down-stay,” “heel,” and potty training when necessary. Some dogs take to training with ease, and it’s a wonderful experience to discover a dog that learns in far excess of these commands.
One day the shelter sent me a 50 lb Rottweiler Lab mix named Allie. She was black and brown with white patches, a year old, and very intelligent. In fact, she was so smart that she learned and mastered the eight basic commands in about 10 days; faster than any dog I’ve ever handled. To give you comparison, most dogs require weeks to months to master all eight commands.
I knew something was different about Allie after the first day of training. I was teaching her to heel, which requires the dog to walk beside you on your left side with its shoulders no further than your knees. The dog is expected to sit whenever you stop walking and to automatically continue when you start to walk again. ‘Heel’ requires the dog to learn how to move in accordance to your movements. If you go left, the dog automatically moves left, and the same is true for when you go right. This discipline usually takes a number of days for a dog to master, as it is the most complex of all the eight disciplines. Allie learned ‘heel’ in two days. By the middle of the second week, she knew all the basics.
One afternoon, I came upon the cell after being outside. The cell doors are solid steel with small slit windows. I could enter the cell with a personal key, and I could exit the cell by pushing a button from the inside. On this day, Allie greeted me at the window.
As I put the key to the lock, I noticed Allie pawing at the button from the inside. It could have been coincidence, as she was all eagerness and paw motion. So I said to her, “Push the button!” each time I saw her pawing at the button. While she didn’t get the door open, she did figure out I was encouraging her to do what she was doing: paw in the area of the button.
So I decided to experiment. Using toilet paper, I fashioned a soft, bulbous bump shaped kind of like a Hershey’s Kiss chocolate. I then taped it to the button, which was indented and not flat. I departed the cell. Moments later, I returned to the door.
There was Allie, obediently waiting and looking up at the window. I said to her, “Allie, press the button!” She jumped up and looked through the window, but didn’t quite understand what I was getting at. So I said it again, “Press the button! Press the button!” and tapped on the door frame about where the button would be, and what do you know? She pawed again at the button, and this time the door clicked open and she came bounding out in circles. I pet and fussed over her, and we did this several more times before she had it down.
It wasn’t long before she was also closing the cell door. I had created a soft coat hanger out of shoe strings, a rolled up magazine, and a towel, and I affixed it to the inside of the cell door and encouraged her to bite into and pull the towel wrapped magazine. “Close the door!” was the command, and she figured it out after only a couple hours of work. I couldn’t believe how smart this dog was! Interestingly, Allie never let herself out of the cell when I wasn’t around.
Everyday the dogs played together in the community area of the day room. On this particular day, there were a number of puppies playing, and Allie seemed to be keeping an eye on them. Whenever one strayed from the pack, she herded it back into the fold. This habit went on every time there were puppies and was great amusement for everyone.
Then one afternoon Allie was playing with several puppies, and I wondered about something.
So I said, “Allie, come.”
Allie disengaged from puppy mania and came to me. There she sat, tongue lolling out of her mouth, pulsing up and down.
“Allie,” I said. “Get the puppy.” Her ears flickered straight up.
“Get the puppy! Get the puppy!” I said.
Allie jumped to all fours running from dog toy to dog toy–
“No,” I said.
–to the next toy–
“No-o,” I said. “Get the puppy! Get the puppy!” I pointed at the puppy I wanted.
She ran over to the puppy and looked around, then back at me, then ran in a circle around the puppy.
“Get the puppy!”
And in that moment the greatest thing happened: Allie put her mouth down on the puppy’s scruff and brought the puppy to me.
“Good girl! Good girl!” I then hugged her.
On another day, it was just Allie and a 50 lb hound dog playing together. I wondered what would happen if I told her to ‘get the puppy’ now?
“Allie,” I said.
Allie stopped playing.
“Get the puppy!” She ran around the play area, looked back at me several times, but kept searching. Eventually she circled back upon the hound dog.
“Get the puppy!” I said again, this time pointing to the hound dog.
Allie stretched her front paws at me and shouted a series of barks and whines.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Go play!”
And like that, she was black and brown action playing again. That was the first and only time Allie ever barked at anyone. Apparently, 50 lb hounds were the limit.
Another neat move she learned was how to hug you. On the command of “Who do you love?” she would jump up on her hind legs and place her front paws at your sides like a hug, with her chin up against your chest. Sometimes she’d lick your chin when you did. I made sure to hug her back each time.
Every day I took Allie for walks on the yard. She was fond of this and happiest when we were outside. Eventually I stopped putting her on a leash, and we’d slow stroll everywhere. Other times we’d go jogging together. I’d be on the track running, and she’d be in the grass running beside me.
At night, I usually kenneled the dogs to prevent them from getting into mischief. I’ve had electronic items, towels, flip-flops, books, and letters from home chewed on or eaten by dogs over the years. As for Allie? I always left the kennel door open for her. Sometimes she’d sleep in the kennel; other times she slept with me at the foot of the bunk. Some mornings I’d wake up to discover that she had crawled up from the end to wedge herself against me and the wall.
About 10 weeks in, I started teaching her American Sign Language. I wanted to see if she could learn some basic commands in ASL. She had proven herself very intelligent, and at this point I was sometimes catching myself talking to her when we were alone. She never felt like a dog to me. She was smarter than some of the guys I knew!
Allie had only one bad moment. I had made a pizza and placed it on the top bunk just for a minute and left the cell. Allie was curled up in a ball on the floor minding herself. When I returned, Allie was still curled up on the floor, but I had noticed something different about the pizza. Someone had excised a perfect square slice from the middle (it was sliced in squares), but left the rest of the pizza untouched. At first I was baffled.
I looked at Allie.
“Allie,” I said. “What did you do?”
Allie looked away. Ah, I thought, guilty.
I couldn’t help but think that she had figured I wouldn’t have believed it was her. After all, what dog eats only one slice?
By the time she was scheduled to leave, she had learned more than 45 verbal commands and 14 genuine ASL commands. Eight of the ASL signs were based on the eight basic commands, but the other six weren’t. They were single ASL signs for “get” (which I used for “get the puppy”), “I love you” (which was used for “who do you love?”) ,”wait” (which I used for “lie down”), “run” (when I wanted to tell her to go play), “cut” (when I wanted her to stop playing), and “no” (whenever I wanted to tell her to knock it off). She understood verbal commands for all kinds of dog toys and could fetch them by name. She understood the names of all the other dogs, and she understood the names of a number of non-dog related things like “shoes,” “radio,” “coffee,” etc. At one point, I started to wonder what the world’s smartest dog knew. I wasn’t so sure that the smartest dog wasn’t the one sitting in front of me.
More and more I found myself spending every waking moment with her and not wanting to do anything else unless she was with me. How, I often wondered, did this wonderful dog ever find its way to the pound?
On the weekends, the local PetSmart held meet and greets for customers looking to adopt a shelter dog. I knew that when Allie’s turn came, she wouldn’t return to me. Someone would adopt her.
Then the day arrived. I gathered her paperwork, which included a daily training diary explaining all that she knew and my observations and recommendations. Before the shelter came for Allie, I took one last moment alone with her.
“Allie,” I said. “I’m gonna miss you.”
Allie sat quietly looking up at me.
I signed the ASL sign for ‘I love you.’
She jumped up and put her paws at my sides and licked my chin.
“Now go,” I said, “and make someone happy.” And I hugged her.
That evening, all the dogs returned except for one: Allie. Someone had adopted her. She was gone. I walked back to the cell and closed the door behind me. Her absence was the first thing I noticed. It was quiet, and the cell felt empty.
I thought I’d prepare the kennel for the next dog, so to take my mind off of Allie. As I did, I discovered three of my socks buried under her blanket. They’re all different, I thought. She must have snuck them from my dirty laundry when I wasn’t looking. But when?
I sat there for a long time holding the socks in my hands.
I thought of all our moments together and smiled.
“I love you, too,” I said.
I then finished preparing the kennel.