The five-year-old stocky French Bulldog places one foot onto a raised platform made from PVC and stretched canvas, then follows it with a second. Bella follows through on the command to “Place” by climbing all the way onto the platform. This will be the last skill practiced during this February morning’s one-hour training session. Bella glances up at her handler for reassurance that she has done well. Geno leans into her and gives her a hug, and she waggles her tongue happily as she soaks in the praise. With a bond like this, it’ll be tough to say goodbye, but that’s exactly what will happen in six weeks.
The smallest and arguably the cutest in her group, Bella is one of eight dogs in the thirty-third rotation of Second Chance Pups. The program pairs inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with unwanted dogs in need of training. Selected inmates work together with a professional trainer, prison staff, and volunteers for a nine-week-rotation to provide dogs with basic obedience training, socialization, behavior modification, grooming and daily one-on-one attention. Since starting in the fall of 2004, over 220 inmates have participated, and about 350 dogs have found homes.
It’s not often that you find something that you truly love, for me, as a 43-year-old man. And to have this now that’s something I can focus my energy to, is definitely a positive outlook for my future and staying out of trouble and off the streets and away from my addictions.–Thomas, SCP handler
At the core of the Lincoln program is the philosophy of getting a redo on life. Behavior problems are one of the leading reasons people relinquish their pets to shelters, and the skills the dogs develop through the SCP help them become adoptable. As for the handlers, they receive an opportunity to give back to society and contribute to a solution for the growing problem of unwanted pets.
Second Chance Pups also offers further benefits to the inmates, who are serving sentences for felonies such as drug offenses, burglary, and motor vehicle homicide. It provides an incentive for good behavior, as interested inmates must avoid disciplinary write-ups six months prior to joining. Once in the program, the handlers often start to learn better ways to handle their emotions and to make better choices. Consider too that the handlers are volunteers themselves, and that they often must turn down paying jobs to participate.
Yeah, Bella gets spoiled. Not just by me, but by everybody. Everybody’s like “awww!”–Geno, SCP handler
Bella’s life has gotten off to a rough start. She came to SCP having been relinquished to an animal shelter because her owner didn’t have enough time for her. Perhaps for this reason she suffers from intense separation anxiety: Geno notes, “she’ll go into the kennel, but then she’s just like, ‘I don’t wanna be here.’ That’s when the circles start.” She’s also prone to bathroom accidents: whenever Geno has something he needs to do and has to put Bella in her kennel, he tries to get back to her quickly before she makes a mess. Like many of the dogs in the SCP program, Bella also possesses a certain degree of stubbornness. Said Geno after the third training session, “When she doesn’t want to do anything, she won’t even take a treat. Put it in front of her and she’s just like ‘I don’t want it, I don’t want it.’ It’s kind of like trying to feed a kid their vegetables.” Bella also has other unique quirks. For example, it quickly became apparent to Geno that she likes to sleep. A LOT. He joked that Bella is either napping or waking up from a nap. And when she’s sleeping, “she snores, all the time. And it’s adorable.” She has other good qualities. For example, she craves attention. A CONSTANT SUPPLY. Geno summed her need up by saying, “She will look at you and want to be loved.” And yet, while many of the dogs had been adopted by the third week of the rotation, no one had come forward to claim the prima-donna Bella.
At various times, from the last week of January to the first week of April, we were given front row seats for SCP’s thirty-third rotation. We attended orientation, one training session, the Canine Good Citizen testing (the program’s “final exam”), graduation, and the introduction of the dogs to their new families. We met the dogs and their handlers, and interviewed some of the volunteers, a guard, and two inmates. Our experiences with SCP will be the subject of several upcoming articles here at LAA Pet Talk.
Written by Allison and Andy Frederick
Photographs by Andy Frederick