She is so helpful. She comes in here to show us stuff every week. Not all of us are on the same page in here, not all of us pay attention like the rest of us, and we’re all on different levels of how serious we take it. In this place it is a little difficult to find good help sometimes. This woman comes in here every week and she’s very thorough about how she says stuff. I love the fact that ladies like come Kim come to volunteer.—Thomas, SCP Handler
Kim Ostermann is the powerhouse at the center of Second Chance Pups, a program that pairs inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with unwanted dogs in need of training, but it would be impossible for her to run the program alone. The more that Andy and I learn about SCP, the more we realize how much work goes into it. Of course, there’s Kim, but there also the other SCP volunteers, prison guards, shelter volunteers, etc. that make this program work.
KIM OSTERMANN, DIRECTOR OF SCP
I’ll start with Kim. Flashback to about twelve years ago. When homeschooling her daughter who was of elementary-age, Kim decided to expand her horizons. She liked cats, but her husband and daughter’s allergies prevented her from having any. As a compromise, Kim started taking care of cats at the Beatrice Humane Society. There, she met Mike Renner of Noah’s Assistance Dogs who was teaching basic obedience to dogs at BHS to make them more adoptable. Interested, Kim signed on with Noah’s to help train puppies to become service dogs. To develop her skills, she took classes under Mike and borrowed books from him. When Mike asked her to help with a dog prison program, at that time known as K-9 Penpals, Kim accepted. In 2009, the program became Second Chance Pups. Kim was one of its first board members.
From the start, Kim has been president of the SCP program. In this role, she leads quarterly board meetings, prepares and fills out lots of paperwork, communicates with prison staff, selects the dogs and writes their bios, matches the dogs with handlers, and photographs each dog before they enter the penitentiary. She organizes most aspects of the program, from gathering up all treats, toys, bones, collars, and leashes, to making vet appointments, to lining up event volunteers. She’s also the head trainer. The only tasks she isn’t involved with are adoptions, finances, and website maintenance.
How does she manage so many responsibilities? Kim recognizes that she’s fortunate to not have a full-time job which allows her to devote much of her time to SCP. However, Kim does note that it’s not always easy. In addition to family commitments, she commutes from Beatrice. One day she’d like to focus on a single aspect of the program, such as the management. Recently, she’s been learning to delegate some tasks to others.
I pull Kim off to the side every once in a while and tell her that, what you’ve taught me works. It’s hard in here, it’s got it’s up and downs, it’s a bumpy path, but we try our best. We try to take all these broken men and we try to make a bond. It can be difficult sometimes, but we do our best. We struggle from the emotional side, sometimes, but when we see the problems, we try to pull together, and make it a team effort.—Thomas, SCP Handler
Kim has grown over her course of years with SCP. She’s come to realize that one shouldn’t judge. “You don’t know everyone’s story and everyone’s background. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from the dogs. They give unconditional love. We could learn a lot from them.” Kim shared that when she first started, she used to check the handlers’ rap sheets, but now she doesn’t. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. The dogs don’t know or care about the background, appearance, or anything about people other than how they’re treated. I give the handlers a chance to prove themselves. It’s all on them. I don’t have any preconceived notions. If they’re in the program for the right reasons, they’re going to learn character and skills and experience the best unconditional love. It’s a different experience when you’re free on the outside. You don’t realize what you have until you lose it. You don’t appreciate the unconditional love in the same way. It heals them and brings out things you would never have thought. The dogs have taught them to be parents, how to train and discipline, and how to love.”
You may not change the world by saving one life, but you will change that one dog’s life.—Kim Ostermann, President of SCP
MELISSA RIPLEY, ADOPTION COORDINATOR OF SCP
Another person with a significant role at Second Chance Pups is Melissa Ripley. Melissa had volunteered with other rescues but hadn’t found the right fit. She then had a lengthy conversation with Kim about SCP and loved that it helped inmates as well as dogs. She offered to do whatever was needed. At the start, this simply meant transporting dogs to vet appointments. Then about three years ago, the Adoption Coordinator asked Melissa if she’d like to take over the position. “Of course, I said yes!”
(Incidentally, the former Adoption Coordinator is Julie Thornburg, who still remains a volunteer with the program. You might remember my mentioning her in my article about Orientation Day at SCP: She helped show the inmates how to give their dogs health checks.)
In her position as Adoption Coordinator, Melissa spends several hours answering emails and taking phone calls from shelters, people wanting to adopt, and people wanting or needing to surrender their dogs. She receives all of the adoption applications and then sets up meet-and-greets between eligible families and the dogs. She also does the final paperwork for the adoptions and sends out information for each new adopter class. Her other duties are taking dogs to the vet, testing each dog’s temperament with kids and cats, and posting the dogs’ bios on Facebook.
In addition to her other contributions to SCP, Melissa is the newest board member, having just accepted the position of secretary on May 11. Congratulations, Melissa!
I was interested in knowing more about how Melissa tests the dogs with cats and kids. To test the SCP dogs with cats, Melissa brings them to her home one at a time to meet her cat Fnu (which stands for First Name Unknown). She adopted Fnu from a shelter about five years ago. She thought she could use him to test the SCP dogs because he’s mellow and friendly. However, initially he was nervous around her dogs. She used treats to reward Fnu for being near her most cat-friendly dog, which helped some. Now each time she brings home an SCP pup, she’ll put it on a leash and bring it to Fnu and let it sniff him. Often Fnu will hiss or swipe at the dogs, but as long as the dog responds with caution or curiosity the dog is considered to be safe around cats.
What about testing the dogs with kids? The reasoning is that the dogs get along with adults, they’ll be okay with kids too, and dogs that have previously bitten anyone aren’t accepted into the program. In addition, once the dogs are brought into the program they are observed around families at informational and fund-raising events.
A full-time police officer, Melissa acknowledges that Second Chance Pups has become her second job. “But since my first job actually pays my bills, I try not to let this one interfere with my paying job! Multi-tasking & good time management skills are helpful to create a good balance so I can do everything I want to do!”
Like Kim, Melissa has also grown since becoming involved with SCP. She’s learned how the program works, how to make good decisions when it comes to applicants, and what’s best for the dogs. “Sometimes this means making people mad or offending people by turning them down for adoptions, but I always have the dog’s best interest in mind. I’ve become more confident with my decisions and instead of trying to make people happy, I have to do the best thing for the dog and not care what people think so much.”
I’ve had so many memorable moments! We recently received a letter from a family who had adopted years ago and the dog they adopted from us just recently passed away. They just wanted us to know how much that dog meant to their family and what it did for them as a family unit. Then there’s the guy who adopted a young dog from us and then told us later how much he had been hurting lately from a bad divorce and somehow that dog just knew and was providing such comfort to him! And there’s the dogs that were days from getting euthanized and went on to be Service Dogs for military vets through Patriot Assistance Dogs (another program we work with) or therapy dogs or just amazing family pets! There are so many memorable moments, I could write a whole book!—Melissa Ripley, Adoption Coordinator for SCP
Like Kim, Melissa also sees SCP program as a win for everyone. “Second Chance Pups is an amazing organization that helps inmates give back to society as well as saves dogs from shelters. We focus on dogs that need training and most likely were surrendered to shelters because of their lack of manners and obedience training. The inmates gain so much knowledge and experience from the dogs and the dogs get great homes.”
Corporal Tyler Gowan, Nebraska State Penitentiary
Given all the potential benefits from SCP, is it any wonder that the Nebraska State Penitentiary has supported the SCP program for over ten years? Corporal Tyler Gowan says he decided to get involved last fall because he considers it a good program for the inmates. Besides providing them with structure, it gives them something to look forward to when the get out of prison. Instead of just falling back on old habits, some inmates develop positive plans. SCP gives them the opportunity to grow and do something good for the community.
Corporal Gowan has been a correctional officer at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for five years, and in October he voluntarily took on the responsibility of supervising the SCP handlers. He makes sure that handlers are taking proper care of their assigned dogs, show up for training, report any issues with their dogs, and keep their records clean. He’s also involved with selection of new handlers, a process which he describes as “quite rigorous”. There’s rarely a shortage of handler applicants, and often a waiting list, which means at times he has to turn down interested inmates. If an inmate drops out during the program because he gets work release, is paroled, or incurs a disciplinary write-up, Corporal Gowan is responsible for finding a replacement.
If that dog acts hyper and out of control, that’s partly your fault for not training the dog to not act like that when you give it the command. Sit! That dog won’t do it because it doesn’t know what that command is. People expect them to know that’s what the command is.—Geno, SCP Handler
An unexpected benefit for Corporal Gowan is that he’s learned some things about dog training by watching the inmates train their dogs and listening to Kim’s instruction. Prior to SCP, he knew simple commands that one might see on the internet or read in books, such as SIT and STAY. However, he’d never taken any of his dogs to an obedience training class.
Let me show you how to make your dog be a better listening good dog, and it won’t take long. I’ve trained dogs with as little as a half hour every morning. And then we just hang out the rest of the day, and at the end of the 9 weeks they’re way different dogs. So I know it doesn’t take a lot. Especially if it’s already in the family, it’s got the bond. All you’ve got to do is start the learning process.—Thomas, SCP Handler
LAURIE DETHLOFF, DIRECTOR OF CNHS
Besides receiving ongoing support from the Nebraska State Penitentiary, SCP also receives cooperation from various shelters across the state. One of them is the Central Nebraska Humane Society, which is proud of its new record adoption rate of 1,300 and new record for cats of 491. It believes that SCP is a great program and reflects the shelter’s mission. At the end of each SCP rotation, Laurie Dethloff, director of CNHS, says that each SCP rotation produces dogs that are that are happier, calmer, more social, and better behaved.
CNHS has a lot of input into the dogs that are selected. The selection process varies each rotation and depends on a number of factors: the needs of the dogs, the experience of the inmate handlers, and the types of dogs that potential adopters are looking for. The dogs’ behavior and skills will also be used to determine whether they will be trained as family dogs or as service dogs. Laurie believes the one-on-one training time dogs receive at the prison will prepare a misbehaving dog for a positive family experience. “Other dogs are selected because of their skills, which then Kim Osterman and her abilities will further develop [so they can go to a program in Minnesota that provides dogs to veterans with PTSD.]”
CNHS puts a lot of work into preparing the dogs that are selected for the SCP program. This includes doing a health and behavior assessment, ensuring the dogs are current on vaccinations and are spayed or neutered, and transporting the dogs to the penitentiary. (For whoever takes on that latter job, it translates to three-hour round trip.) At all stages of the process, close communication with SCP is key.
Although CNHS has sent dogs for previous rotations, they didn’t provide ones for the 33rd rotation. “We were not able to participate due to timing on our part.” Yet Laurie still attended the graduation because CNHS believes “it’s important to show to support for the work being done on behalf of these dogs. It’s an excellent program for the dogs and inmates, an opportunity to thank SCP and the inmate trainers and prison staff for all of the positive aspects of the program beyond the training.”
DEBORA WILCOX, SAUNDERS COUNTY LOST PETS
Saunders County Lost Pets is a pet rescue organization that adopts out 110 dogs per year on average. It’s proud of the partnerships, that have been made with organizations such as SCP, that have enabled SCLP to adopt out more pets each year. The rescue was founded by Debora Wilcox after her own two Labrador retrievers escaped while she was taking down fence to lay sod in her yard. SCLP began working with SCP about three or four years ago. Debora feels that the dogs enrolled in SCP always come out much more obedient. “They are also well loved. And with the love they get they blossom.”
Debora relies on her training as an animal behavior specialist to provide feedback about the dogs that are selected. She makes recommendations to Kim based on temperament; seeking dogs with confidence that would succeed in a new environment. For the 33rd rotation, she sent a black lab mix named Vader. “He was a stray that I picked up out of a field. He had such a great temperament. I selected him due to his great disposition and his flexible confidence in any situation. He was a big sweet heart.” SCLP also prepares the dogs that are selected by getting the vet work done.
OTHER SCP VOLUNTEERS
Near the beginning of this article I wrote that the more that Andy and I learned about SCP, the more we also realized how much work goes into it by Kim and a host of other individuals. Besides the ones I’ve highlighted here, there are many others. On the board there’s Krissa Knopik, who serves as the treasurer; Karen Stratham who does a lot of SCP’s presentations; and Julie Thornburg who helps with the dogs on the first day of each new rotation. Regular volunteers not on the board include Sara Mattson who puts photos of the dogs on Petfinder and helps with keeping photos current on the SCP website and Kerri Paulson who helps at events and brings bandanas for the dogs at the adoption class.
Then there are the countless fosters, who provide homes for the dogs selected for SCP prior to the dogs being placed with the inmates. Kim notes that a challenge to the program is that SCP doesn’t have a physical shelter to take dogs into that are waiting to get into the program. “If we don’t have a foster home available, we cannot take a dog because we have nowhere to put them. So we often turn a lot of dogs away because the timing isn’t right.”
As we draw near the end of this series on SCP, Andy and I hope you have enjoyed our overview of the program. We’ve certainly appreciated the opportunity to see it in action, and we’re happy to do our small part to help promote it with articles and photographs. Next week, LAA Pet Talk will feature one last article about the program: Graduation Day, on which the dogs say goodbye to their handlers and say hello to their new families.
Dig deep and find out what inspires you, what makes you motivated to volunteer…. The biggest thing about being a volunteer is you can’t expect anything in return. For me, I was volunteering not because of what I wanted to do but for my daughter. I ended up doing it for joy. It’s a challenge working with dogs that know nothing, but you want them to be good adoptable dogs. It was the last thing I was looking for, but here I am eleven years later. You also need to set your boundaries. Otherwise, you’ll get burnt out. Focus on the positive. You’re there to make a difference.—Kim Ostermann, SCP President
Don’t volunteer for the glory or the credit. Do it for the good of the cause and the organization. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the focus of the program! It isn’t about YOU, it’s about your program and helping animals!—Melissa Ripley, Adoption Coordinator for SCP