Ripley wasn’t like the other dogs the handler had trained. The shy four-year-old English Lab had been used in a breeding operation and didn’t know anything about the world or normal life as a pet. While Thomas enjoyed watching her come out of her shell, he found her difficult to work with. Their first week together, she was quick to burn out. After just a few minutes of work she’d just put her head down and stare at the floor. It didn’t matter what treat her handler offered, she wasn’t going to look at him again. She was the “poutiest” dog Thomas had ever trained.
Ripley is one of eight dogs in the thirty-third rotation of Second Chance Pups, a program that pairs inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with unwanted dogs in need of training. To find dogs for the program, SCP looks for owner surrenders, unclaimed strays, and returned shelter dogs. Whatever the source, the program seeks dogs that require training before they can be considered adoptable. The only restriction is that all dogs they take on must get along with other dogs.
Kim’s very observant on our disposition, on how we handle ourselves with training the dogs. She’s aware of what type of personality we exude. She pays attention to that. Sometimes she tries to direct us into certain dogs.—Thomas, SCP Handler
The selected dogs are then matched with that rotation’s handlers. The most experienced handlers will get the most challenging dogs. Quiet, patient handlers will get dogs that that don’t respond well to loud voices or harsh corrections. Handlers that prefer big dogs will get big dogs. Each dog typically receives a primary handler and a secondary handler. If the primary handler isn’t available for any reason—for example, if he has a doctor’s appointment or a job that that he can’t bring the dog to—the secondary handler will look after the dog. The program is designed to be a good experience for everyone involved.
Thomas has been in the SCP program for just under two years now. Ripley is his ninth dog. Melissa Ripley (that Ripley the dog’s name is the same as her last name is just a coincidence), the program’s Adoption Coordinator, says Thomas is very easy to get along with: “He’s also very calm and softer spoken so we send a lot of the softer dogs to him. He does well with these dogs and Ripley was a little timid and a softer dog.”
Although he’s open to taking any dog, Thomas prefers dogs that struggle: “I think it teaches me more, if I have to work harder for the dog. A dog that struggles more, that fights you more, you gotta think of more stuff, or you might get the feet stuff or the hand stuff wrong.” But Thomas will also take the easier, peaceful, loving, fast-learning dogs, which he says also help him sharpen his skills: “I’m getting to master the commands better because the dogs are helping me, they’re just so easy to get along with.” He tries to learn something from every dog, because he never knows what’s going to come his way.
Thomas quickly realized that Ripley would take work. Because she had come from a breeding operation, Ripley was slow to bond with anyone, everything was new and scary to her, and she didn’t know how to play. When it came to training, Thomas says Ripley started out clumsy, lazy, and stubborn. Thomas would need to teach her both socialization and obedience skills, but that’s not uncommon for the dogs who come to SCP.
SCP dogs are trained in three different ways. First, there is socialization, which happens by virtue of the dogs living with their handlers for nine weeks. Explains Melissa, “The dogs learn socialization by being in the housing units and around other people. They get love and attention and learn to trust people, whereas they may not have known that before. They learn basic house manners, how to go potty outside, how to be on furniture, around people food, etc. The constant care and affection is something every dog loves!”
Second, there’s the weekly formal training led by Kim Osterman, director of the SCP program. On a typical training day, Kim and Melissa practice and build on the previously-learned commands and learn new commands. These sessions generally last about an hour.
Finally, there’s daily formal training with the handlers. Thomas describes his typical training regimen: “I come down here in the morning and I’m down here from 8 o’clock to 10 o’clock, and I train as much as I can in that two hours without pushing them too much.” Even when handlers aren’t doing formal training, they’re still training the dogs because obedience commands help dogs know how to behave in various situations. For example, if the dog stands and puts its front paws on anyone, the handler will command OFF and, if necessary, follow with a leash correction to teach the dog what OFF means. Other commands that a dog will learn through common informal interactions are SIT, STAY, and COME.
As the days and weeks pass, Thomas sees Ripley become more curious. “A lot of stuff is interesting to her and she wants to go up and check out. You can tell she’s lovin’ it.” Over time, Ripley also becomes more social. “When you get the baby talk going and you play with her she just gets this huge smile on her big wide face and you can just tell she’s smiling, and her eyes, her face lights up. You can tell she’s lovin’ the whole experience. Whether she gets scared from time to time or not.” Within only three weeks, Ripley has proved herself “a huge people person. She thinks everybody should be pettin’ her. Showing her attention. So that’s what I love about her. As naive as she is about everything, this and that, there’s not a person she won’t go up to, get kisses and pettin’. She’s like a big teddy bear.” As the program progresses, Ripley also starts to learn to play with toys and even with other dogs.
We sometimes have inmates who want to get involved in the program but they don’t realize how much work it involves. It’s a lot of work to have a dog with you all day, every day and to be solely responsible for that dog, and sometimes they don’t realize that.—Melissa Ripley, SCP Adoption Coordinator
Andy and I have returned to the penitentiary to observe the third week of SCP training. When we arrive, the handlers are wearing their SCP shirts. Updates on adoption inquiries are given: interest has been expressed in most of the dogs. Melissa checks in with handlers to see if they have any questions or concerns. There’s a brief conversation about the amount of food to give particular dogs. Then Kim begins the class.
With Kim this week is Jack, a five-month old black lab. The handlers incorporate Jack into their meet-and-greets—two handlers approach each other and say hello while their dogs sit calmly at their sides—so the SCP dogs can learn to ignore an unknown dog.
Next, the handlers practice WALK, SIT, and DOWN, with their dogs on loose leashes. The primary handlers go first. Treats are still being used as rewards. Some handlers hold the leash to the side; others at their back. When Kim calls STOP, handlers command their dogs to SIT. Some of the dogs require commands to be repeated before they’ll respond. Some want to interact with their handler instead of focusing on the command. Whenever the dogs obey the issued command, the handlers offer ample praise, petting, and treats.
Two commands are added to SIT. Teaching the dogs to WALK, SIT, and ABOUT is recognized as the easiest for this group. In contrast, teaching the dogs to WALK, SIT, and DOWN is the hardest and takes more work. No matter which command is given, the dogs assigned to the newest handlers seem to respond more slowly, collide with their handlers more often, and don’t shadow their handlers as closely.
Kim asks if the dogs can do a WAIT for 30 seconds. The handlers say 15 seconds, but about half of the dogs struggle to WAIT for this brief amount of time. Some dogs lie down instead of sit. Others break from their positions, move about, and try to interact with other dogs or with their handlers. Handlers seek advice from Kim or others.
COME is the next command. Some of the dogs are eager to reunite with their handlers. When they do, they’re greeted with hugs and praise. Several aren’t performing up to par. Some wander, some run past their handlers. Halfway into the training session, Kim stops to lecture the group. She’s given good examples, but she isn’t seeing follow through and she wants to know the reason.
I really like helping the handlers learn and love seeing them growing with their training skills! Some are just naturals and others take time and even weekly reminders of how to execute a command.—Kim Osterman, SCP Director
Kim singles out Baxter for his poor performance. Handlers jokingly call out, “Way to go, Baxter!” Kim brings the one-and-a-half-year-old Lab mix to the front to demonstrate. A handler makes the suggestion to break the command COME into two parts: COME and RETURN.
Baxter remains with Kim as she demonstrates the command PLACE. At the sight of a platform made of PVC and canvas, the dogs start to relax. Kim tells handlers to walk around the table and say PLACE when their dog goes onto the platform. Then they should say FREE to release their dog. Baxter performs this skill well. His handler boasts, “He got this down 20 minutes ago!”
At this point Kim tells the class, “My voice is going and so I can’t yell.” A handler jokingly shouts, “What?”
Kim has needed to speak loudly to be heard over the noisy ventilation system. Now it finally cuts out and a handler says, “That’s better.”
The LEAVE IT command is next. Kim throws the ball so she can tell Baxter to LEAVE IT. But Baxter is too interested in Kim’s clipboard to notice the ball. A handler asks how to work on the command if the dog isn’t interested in toys. Kim explains that LEAVE IT is a universal command to tell the dog to leave alone any person, dog, or food; not just toys.
Entering this third week, Ripley has mastered walking by her handler’s side, as well as SIT and even DOWN. Yet she still presents Thomas with a challenge. “She’s like, ‘I’m not lookin’ at you right now.’ Cuz she knows that ‘you’re gonna make me do stuff that I don’t want to do’. And it’s like ‘Really, Ripley? Ripley, can you sit? Ripley, show me sit.’ She’ll stiffen up…. and I’m like, ‘are you serious?’ That’s where the frustration part comes in cuz she knows now, she’s learned, I’ve taught her. Basically what she’s showing me is that she don’t want to do it and she’s gonna pout to not do it.” Sometimes Ripley, much like a little kid, insists on having her own way. To deal with the stress this causes Thomas, he will put her in time out to give them both time away from each other. “But then I’ll go back over and baby talk her up and get her back up and try to train her a little bit.”
She’s wantin’ to please me and at first she didn’t and now she’s realizing that, ‘okay, this is what this guy wants, and he treats me good, so I’m gonna go ahead and do it.’ It’s almost like that process for me is just like, you know, I’m making that connection, I’m making that bond. I’m not the one that’s just going to make her pout. I’m the one that’s going to potentially teach her something and take care of her. Put that big smile on her face. She’ll be layin’ there sleeping, and then, you can literally see her mouth just curl up. She’s the biggest smiler I’ve had. Biggest pouter and biggest smiler.”
Ultimately the two ended up making a bargain. Thomas told her he’d just train her once a day, in the morning, and then he’d leave her alone. “With her she can burn out real quick and she’s going to go right down into pout mode. So I just slow down my commands and do a little bit more… just walking… and then do a command here and there, and it helps.”
Despite the challenges, Thomas remains optimistic. “I got six more weeks to just keep fine tuning these. And it’ll be cool to see at the end of the nine weeks… I can just say it, and she’ll do it cuz she knows I want her to do it, she knows she gets that reward, and that praise, and that treat.”
At the end of the nine-week rotation lies the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test, which is “recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior”. Dogs that pass the 10-step CGC test not only receive a certificate but are considered to “have good manners at home and in the community”. Although SCP dogs typically pass the CGC, there are always exceptions. Will Ripley pass? I’ll be back to share the results of SCP’s 33rd rotation next month. At that time, I’ll also share highlights from graduation day, which is a bittersweet time because inmates will say farewell to their canine companions while families will meet their new dogs who will go home with them forever.