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Training program at Oklahoma prison gives dogs, inmates a new leash on life

Ten inmates at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center participate in the Friends For Folks inmate dog training program, the second-oldest program of its kind in the U.S. and the subject of “The Dogs of Lexington,” a 45-minute documentary airing at 9:45 p.m. Thursday on OETA.
BY GEORGE LANG glang@opubco.com Modified: July 20, 2013 at 12:14 am •  Published: July 21, 2013

Doobie is sitting in the green grass, getting his belly scratched and kicking one of his hind legs, the universally recognized signal that the scratcher, trainer Daniel Dill, has found just the right place. Dill said that Doobie, a border collie mix, had a problem with jumping up on his owners. But two weeks into training, Dill could see that he was getting somewhere.

“I don't think he's been socialized a lot with men, because he's skittish with men,” said Dill, 34, a tall man with a shaved head and an easygoing demeanor. “But he's getting a little better.”

Pull back just a little from this happy scene, and both Dill and Doobie are surrounded by high fences, razor wire, watchtowers and reinforced security doors. Once Doobie completes his high intensity training after 30 days of discipline, he will leave the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, the medium-security facility where Dill is serving a 49-year sentence for automobile burglary, firearms possession, eluding an officer and assault with a dangerous weapon.

Doobie will go back home to his family. Dill will still be there, with plenty of time on his hands, but he will carry with him the immense satisfaction of transforming a dog's life and, as he keeps putting this skill to work, his own.

“Most of us are in here for something serious, because we're all pretty much longer-term offenders,” Dill said. “I did so much wrong out there, but now I'm able to give back now. That helps so much on a day-to-day.”

Dill is one of 10 inmates at the reception center who participate in the Friends For Folks inmate dog training program, the second-oldest program of its kind in the U.S. and the subject of “The Dogs of Lexington,” a 45-minute documentary airing at 9:45 p.m. Thursday on OETA. While part of the Friends For Folks program is dedicated to dogs such as Doobie that need behavioral fine-tuning, others will become companion dogs for elderly people and veterans. And a few will become heroes.

“They basically have two programs,” said John Otto, a Norman-based veterinarian who has worked with Friends For Folks for 17 years. “One is a high-intensity training program where the public can bring their pet in and get trained, especially where they have issues of jumping up or jumping over a fence. Then we have the program where they take them from Second Chance or animal shelters and they train them for three months.”

These are the dogs that need the most help, because they don't have real homes. After being brought into Second Chance Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill facility in Norman that finds homes for more than 600 abandoned animals each year, the dogs are immunized and spayed or neutered, and many are ready for adoption. But some have behavioral issues — nipping and other anti-social tendencies that can arise from neglect or abuse.

“Sometimes we have a dog that needs extra attention because it's becoming a problem child,” said Kay Stout, executive director of Second Chance. Each year, between 30 and 40 Second Chance dogs are brought to the attention of Lee Fairchild, a case manager for the reception center who works as the Friends For Folks' program director and makes regular visits to Second Chance. “He will come down and select the dogs that will fit his program and his trainers.”

The inmates who train these dogs are serving time for felonies, many for violent crimes, and some will spend their entire lives at Lexington or other facilities within the state Corrections Department. A few will be paroled, and their participation in Friends For Folks can be a major determining factor in whether they earn their freedom. But in order to become trainers in the program, the men must be model inmates. Fairchild said the minimum requirement is six months without being written up for drugs or violence, but because he administers Friends For Folks on a volunteer basis and carries a full caseload, he only accepts inmates who have maintained spotless records for one year.

Fairchild does this work because it forms a perfect intersection between his job and his passion. He loves dogs, and the proof is in the statistics. Last year, Fairchild and his Australian shepherd cross, Gracie, won the world championship in the “microdog” division at the Hyperflite Skyhoundz World Canine Disc Championship in Chattanooga, Tenn.

And as a case manager, Fairchild tries to keep the inmates in his charge on the path toward rehabilitation. The dogs work wonders on the inmates, he said, and vice versa. The trainers learn how to communicate properly and, through their experiences working with different dogs with varying temperaments, they discover how to put that knowledge to work in how they interact with people. Fairchild said that is an essential skill for prisoners who get paroled.

“Eventually, just about everybody's gonna get out — eventually, you know?” Fairchild said. “You go in for a job interview, you have to be able to speak somewhat, no matter what the job is.”

Marvin Perry's Star

This is an inexpensive program that produces results, Fairchild said. The Friends For Folks program is a $1,500 line-item in the state budget, and according to Fairchild, he rarely spends all of the money. While the allocation is designated to pay for food, medicine and other necessary items for the dogs, in-kind donations of dog food are commonplace. Occasionally, people will recognize Fairchild while he is shopping at PetSmart and buy large bags of kibble for the trainees.

The results for both the dogs and the inmates can be dramatic. In 2000, Sgt. Tracy Beckelheimer, a corrections officer, brought a black Labrador retriever from Second Chance to Friends For Folks, and turned him over to Marvin Perry, an inmate/trainer serving 50 years for first-degree murder. Perry was a model prisoner, and he had come a long way since his 1986 conviction. Perry named the dog Star, and he began working closely with Star to make her an expert tracker.

Star lived with Perry in his cell for four years. During that time, Star literally saved lives, finding runaway teens, escaped convicts and, in one case, located an Alzheimer's patient in 20 minutes after helicopter rescues and on-the-ground search teams had tried for nine hours.

In 2006, Star was inducted into the Oklahoma Animal Hall of Fame in a ceremony that Perry, who had since been transferred to the low-security Oklahoma City Community Correctional Center, was given special permission to attend. Otto, the Norman veterinarian, had become friends with the inmate and wrote a letter to Gov. Brad Henry, asking that Perry be paroled. Henry signed the parole in 2008.

Otto, the son of a former FBI acting director, said there has been no greater transformation that he has witnessed in his lifetime than what he saw with Perry.

“My friend Marvin Perry,” Otto said. “He took a dog from the shelter, trained it, and it saved a woman's life.”

After his release, Perry worked once a week on Otto's property near Norman, at one point helping rebuild a barn after a tornado leveled it. Perry died in July 2012 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, but Otto said he will always treasure his family's relationship with the former prisoner.

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