Boomer isn’t happy about having his nails clipped. The two-and-a-half-year-old, mostly black and white German Shepherd mix, shoves his full weight against the stranger whose arms are wrapped around him. Boomer strains anxiously, panting heavily. The man uses quiet words and gentle strokes to help Boomer settle. Then Boomer squirms again, and blood oozes from his a nail cut too close to the quick. A man standing next to Boomer pats his head. The woman with the nail clippers puts them down and applies styptic powder to the bleeding nail. Boomer’s eyes are wide with apprehension, but as the people around him shower him with praise he allows the rest of his nails to be clipped.
Today is orientation day, the first day of the 33rd rotation of Second Chance Pups. The program pairs inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with unwanted dogs in need of training. On this day, about twenty people and eight dogs are crowded together in a back room of the penitentiary’s recycling building. The dogs are restless and scared, many having come from local shelters and rescues. Some of the fourteen inmates are newcomers to the program and aren’t sure what to expect. Then there’s Andy and me. Being first-time visitors, we’re both nervous and excited. But we settle into our work: Andy with his photos and I with my notes. Over the next few hours, we gradually begin to learn about this amazing program.
Orientation day begins shortly after noon on a snowy day in January. Three SCP volunteers arrive at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with multiple leashed dogs in tow. A four-year-old English lab refuses to take the stairs and is treated to an elevator ride with Kim Osterman, President of the SCP program; according to Melissa Ripley, Adoption Coordinator of the program, “It happens every rotation that some dog doesn’t like the stairs.” Volunteers hand off the dogs to two guards who disappear beyond secured doors with their furry charges. My husband and I remain behind with the three SCP volunteers to be stamped, scanned, and pat searched. We then proceed through several secured doors until we eventually meet up with the dogs who are already getting to know their new handlers. Passing through more secured doors, we find ourselves in the prison yard. The group walks together to the recycling center.
The kennel room has cinder block walls and concrete floors. On one wall are the Domestic-PUPS and Second Chance Pups logos. Handlers immediately put their dogs into their kennels. At the back of each kennel is a doggy door leading outside. On top of some of the kennels are cleaning supplies. On the floor are large containers holding dog food and bones. A poster depicting various dog breeds is taped to a wall. Clipped to the front of each occupied kennel are a feeding guide and a weight chart. Volunteers unload supplies onto a desk and table. Chairs, fans, and lockers take up most of the room’s remaining space.
The first half hour is characterized by restrained commotion. Handlers interact with their dogs and ask questions of the SCP volunteers. Kim gives directions and guidance. Some of the handlers look through the new calendar from Patriot Assistance Dogs, a program to which sometimes SCP will donate dogs. Guards ask about supply needs. A few handlers sit with their dogs in their kennels. Other handlers write notes on whiteboards. One inmate goes outside to shovel.
Discussion turns to names, personalities, and the dogs’ needs. All of the dogs have been temperament tested with people, other dogs, and cats. The handlers are warned that two of the dogs don’t get along and should be kept apart. One dog needs a new name; he came with the name Zeus, but that name suggests aggression. More tips and cautions are issued: some dogs might not be used to leashes or might chew up collars, one dog was a breeder dog and much will be new to him and he may not be socialized. Then there’s charming little Bella, whom I wrote about in my first article in this series. Her small size is a cause for concern. There’s a small opening between her kennel and the next, and so there’s a worry she could get into the next kennel and might get bit. The suggestion was raised to put a small kennel within the big kennel.
They’re comin’ from such a negative thing in life, and I can relate to that. Who knows what that animal’s been through. Most likely, we get them out of the Humane Society, or a breeder mill, or whatever, they’ve been through something. Or deprived. So that for me to be able to say ‘here, not all people are bad.’ It’s just awesome.–Thomas, SCP Handler
Kim reminds everyone that the dogs have been through a lot, that they’ve been shuffled from place to place and now find themselves here. They’re overwhelmed, she says, and some aren’t used to people. She tells the handlers to educate guards and inmates about the need to approach the dogs slowly, as well as the importance of practicing crowd control. If a dog backs up and puts its ears back, handlers need to tell others to back off and give the dog time to adjust. Kim stresses that the handlers are their dogs’ protectors. A dog that can’t retreat might bite, and then it’ll be out of the program, and no one wants that. Kim tells the handlers to make sure their dogs don’t end up in that situation.
Potty training is the next topic. In this new environment the dogs might forget what training they’ve had. Handlers are responsible for taking their dogs out and teaching them to “go potty”. Teaching dogs the proper place to use the bathroom will need to be handled just like it would be at a person’s home. Dogs should be taken outside consistently for potty training to be successful. The biggest goal is to get the dogs on a schedule. If handlers are in their cells, they can get permission to take their dog out. Kenneling the dogs at night, Kim advised, would also help with potty training.
Finally, Kim tells the handlers not to worry yet about training their dogs in obedience. The dogs will need a few days to adjust, she says. They might not initially eat. They might have messy bowel movements. Handlers should be patient, do lots of petting, and focus on getting to know their dogs. Kim said that when she returns in two days for the first training session, handlers should be ready to give her personal information about their dogs, including a detailed health record.
Julie, a longtime volunteer with SCP, takes the floor to talk about the need for handlers to groom their dogs. Julie recommends that handlers shampoo dogs only once a month to ensure their hair doesn’t get dried out. Handlers should check the ears and nails of their assigned dog for the first couple days. Julie then shows how to clip a dog’s nails by demonstrating on Boomer, who, as one of the most energetic dogs, is a poster child for what SCP is about.
Boomer has a checkered history. He started out as an outside farm dog. A scrapper, he had to fight for everything including food, and so was strongly independent. Then he killed the family cat and was sent to the local shelter. Although he did get adopted out, he got surrendered again due to being so high in energy. Now, like the other seven dogs, he’s here getting a second chance.
I love these dogs dearly and I miss them when they leave. But the fact that I have to let them go… I know they’re going to a better place and the fact that I got to spend two months with that animal and basically I feel the animal did more for me than I did for it. We both work with each other. That was the best experience in two months that I could have ever asked for.–Thomas, SCP Handler
Kim takes the floor again and stresses the importance of the training sessions. Without behavior modification, Kim notes, dogs are more likely to be relinquished to shelters. There are a number of articles in the handlers’ information packets about how to teach the dogs obedience and manners. Kim instructs the handlers to review these handouts and know the training commands; when she talks about basic obedience commands in the upcoming training sessions, they should already have a familiarity with them.
Bringing up the issue of health again, Kim explains that handlers should do a physical exam, or a hands-on check, of their dogs to determine if there are issues. If a dog gets sick, its handlers should fill out a medical form and give it to a guard to take to the vet. The form may be the only communication for the vet and so it needs to provide all necessary information. In addition, Kim warns, handlers should only give medication that has been approved or prescribed.
Next, Kim lectures about her biggest pet peeve: No people food! Many of the dogs will be going to homes with kids, and SCP doesn’t want the dogs snatching food away from the kids. Also, people food can mess with the dogs’ stomachs and make them sick. If anyone tries to give their dogs people food, the handlers should just say no and walk away.
Activity is another topic Kim addresses. She notes that the dogs should be exercised for thirty minutes every day. Except for night time, dogs should be kept no more than four hours at a time in the big kennels and two hours in the small kennels. If a dog has a secondary handler, there’s really no reason for the dog to be in a kennel at all. That’s the purpose of the secondary handlers.
Kim cautions the handlers to always keep their dogs on a leash. The play yards and the recycling center are off-leash areas; the dogs must be leashed everywhere else. Before opening their dog’s kennel, the handler should already have a leash in hand. Handlers are told that their assigned dog can’t be handed off to anyone not currently in the program for any amount of time. Their dog is their responsibility, period.
When it comes to toys, Kim tells the handlers that it’s okay to leave out bones and Kongs. All other toys should be picked up; dogs will eat them and then they’ll need a trip to the emergency vet. Not even leashes should be left hanging on the kennels, as they can quickly become chew toys and hazards. Ripped blankets are to be discarded.
The bottom line is that it’s each handler’s responsibility is to feed, exercise, train, and otherwise care for their assigned dog. Participation in Second Chance Pups is a full-time responsibility. She reminds the handlers that others will be watching them. Everyone will be looking to them to see if the program works.
It’s hard, at first. It’s difficult. I gotta let you go. You make such a connection with these dogs. They tell you these aren’t your pets, you’re not supposed to fall in love. Kim would say ‘these aren’t your pets.’ I’d say ‘it is for nine weeks.’–Geno, SCP Handler
Orientation is intensive, but there’s a light-hearted atmosphere, especially among the experienced handlers. When Kim reminds everyone that the dogs aren’t their pets, one handler jokes, “They aren’t?” Another quips, “They are for nine weeks!” While the latter might be true, Kim advises them to remember this is a volunteer job. The handlers will get attached but, at the end of the rotation, the dogs will go home to others. That’s why it’s important, Kim stresses, for every handler to follow the SCP guidelines, which have been developed based on SCP experience and will make training smoother and transitions easier.
We’ve all been in the kennel room for almost two hours. Boomer returns from a potty break with his handler. After being put into his kennel, he suddenly leaps straight up, almost to the top. Maybe he was looking for a way out? His handler teases, “Boomer! What was that?”, then enters the kennel to try to settle the high-energy dog.
It’s been a long afternoon. The handlers have been given a wealth of information to process, and everyone is starting to get restless. One of the long-time handlers comes inside with his dog and asks, “Did I miss the speech about jobs?”
It can be tricky in here, to take a grown man that’s got issues, and tell him that hey, I wanna help you, but please don’t take this the wrong way, because we can be very prideful men sometimes.–Thomas, SCP Handler
Kim wraps up the orientation by asking, “Any questions?” This brings a serious response: “Probably a hundred. But not right now.” Some of the experienced handlers begin to offer their own advice, stressing that their intention is to help the new handlers. The old-timers say they know the program and what’s expected.
Talk becomes more light-hearted. Chatter turns to past graduates of the program, with handlers asking for updates They’re eager for information and are pleased to hear they are living happy lives with good families.
Glad for orientation to be over, we all walk around the outside of the building to re-enter the much larger main room of the recycling center. There the handlers finally get to relax with their dogs. Some work on tricks, some play, and others just sit with their dogs. In only two days the intense training will begin. Check back next week for my next article about the Second Chance Pups training sessions.
Author’s Note: As of the writing of this post, a match still has yet to be been found for Boomer. He’s currently receiving further training at the Central Nebraska Humane Society in Grand Island. Laurie Dethloff, Director, reports he’s enjoying lots of walks and getting tons attention from their volunteers.