LEXINGTON — 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.
“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 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.”