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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

“He became such a good friend of the family,” Otto said. “That's a Hallmark film there.”

The documentary “The Dogs of Lexington,” directed and edited by Oklahoma City Community College film professor Greg Mellott, filmed by students and funded by the Kirkpatrick Foundation, is dedicated to Perry. In the film, his daughter talks about the change she saw in her father, a man she never thought would step outside of a prison.

“I think this program really changed him,” said Marva Perry Griffin in the documentary. “It changed his thought processes about how you do things and how you live life. And so, in essence, it ended up changing him. And when he came out, he was a better daddy. He was a better person.”

Sarge and Stony

Otto describes Friends For Folks as a “win-win-win” proposition, a positive for the dogs, the inmates, and the people who adopt the dogs as companions. One recent success story involves Sarge, a terrier-schnauzer mix who was a hard case. He was a nipper and a growler that was returned to shelters by adoptive families on two separate occasions, and Sarge was in danger of being euthanized when he was rescued by Second Chance and selected by Fairchild for Friends For Folks.

His trainer, 68-year-old Bill Miller, is serving a life sentence for the 1975 murder of a convenience store employee. Sarge became Miller's 18th dog, and Miller trained him for five months as a companion, slowly working out the sharp edges of Sarge's personality. Eventually, the dog softened and left his growl behind. In the Friends For Folks program, there is a lot of that happening.

In October, Sarge became a house dog at the Norman Veterans Center, a 301-bed facility serving both male and female veterans. There, he provides warmth and comfort for men and women who fought for their country — people who Miller might have joined, if the Vietnam veteran's life had not taken a dark turn after he returned home.

Now, Miller said he feels that there is a purpose in what he does every day, as he puts new dogs through their paces on the agility equipment and discovers what makes them tick.

“I worked for OCI (Oklahoma Correctional Industries), the housing project and garment factory and all that for 13 years, and I'd just get up, go to chow, go to work, go back in,” Miller said. “With the dogs, the rut's not there. It's almost a new day every day. You never know how they're going to react to certain commands or if they're going to be hardheaded or do everything on point. It's a blessing.”

Todd Saunders, 29, joined the program seven years ago. He is tall, covered in tattoos and is an effective, gregarious communicator who achieved a breakthrough with one of the most challenging dogs to come through the program.

Stony, a deaf boxer, came to Friends For Folks from the Tulsa Boxer Rescue Foundation.

“He would nip people in the butt to get their attention,” Saunders said.

Calls would not work — there would be no “sit,” “stay” or “go to bed” for Stony. To compensate and communicate with the dog, Saunders created a series of strong hand gestures to reach Stony, and discovered that eye contact was a must. Like the other dogs and their trainers, Stony became Saunders' cellmate. The inmate worried that his dog would startle easily in the mornings, since the only way to rouse him was with a gentle nudge, but Stony was a cool character. And as the training progressed, Stony would make his own eye contact with Saunders, looking for direction.

After his training ended, Stony returned to the Tulsa Boxer Rescue Foundation, and within a week, he was adopted into a home in Virginia. Saunders has trained many dogs since his incarceration, but he learned the most from Stony.

“It has taught me patience and perseverance,” Saunders said. “With each dog you learn something new and you find a new tactic to train the dog, because no one thing works with every dog. Just like with people.”

The Duke

The yard at the reception center is surrounded by wooden platforms, ramps and seesaws, and on a cloudy day in April, Saunders guides a chocolate Labrador over one of the seesaws with ease. Two men oversee the trainers as they take their dogs through the paces of a square, gravel path. Fairchild is at the center, calling commands and watching for form and control. On the south end is Bill Gassaway, who has spent 13 years in Friends For Folks, and keeping equally close attention is Duke, a standard poodle who never leaves his side.

“I've had quite a few dogs,” said Gassaway, a thin, white-haired 69-year-old man serving life without parole. “But I have Duke now, and that's about the best one.”

Duke is the program's mascot, and he is a quiet wonder, setting a dignified example for the young upstarts in the yard. After so many years and many more dogs, Gassaway is now the lead trainer for the program. As much as a man can be in his situation, Gassaway is in charge.

“Him and all these fellows here,” Gassaway said, referring to Duke and the trainers in the yard. “When I got into the program, it got me to give up drugs. I'm a lot happier person now.”

As he talks about the things he has learned and now teaches, Gassaway makes short, emphatic statements, and most could apply to any of the people or dogs in his program. The bond between man and his best friend comes down to communication, after all, and it goes both ways.

“They've got to learn to listen. You've got to get patience. If you don't got it, you'll get it real quick,” Gassaway said. “You'll come up with some knuckleheads. But they're good. They'll teach you.”

On the sidelines, Otto watched as the exercises ended. He was not always so certain about working with prisoners — his father, the FBI agent, did not believe that rehabilitation worked until his son became part of a success story.

Now, Otto has plans to take the program and its story forward. Some plans involve outreach, including his long-held dream of writing a children's book about Marvin Perry and Star, possibly even making a line of Star stuffed animals for the children of prisoners.

And then there is the planned expansion into the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, where the female prisoners will train dogs to comfort returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Plans are underway for the facility, which is being designed by architect Rand Elliott of Elliott + Associates.

“We're at the very earliest stages of this, and we're thinking of this perhaps as a pilot program, something that can be done at different locations,” said Elliott, who is donating his time for the project.

“I've always felt that architecture can have a huge impact on people's lives, and in this particular instance to have a habitat, a place for these animals that is safe and allows them to be trained and have a home is amazing,” he said.

“The person helps rebuild the animal, and the animal helps rebuild the person.”