Graduation Day at Second Chance Pups

12 years ago . . . I can remember when we sat and talked about introducing this program. What a pleasure it was to bring it in. . . . to see it do well. It’s a win for the dogs and it’s a win for you: sometimes I wonder who’s training who. It’s a win for the facility: it takes the edge off. It’s a win for the families: they get a trained dog. It’s a win for the shelters: when a dog is adopted, it opens up another spot. Thanks to everyone who volunteers. It’s a noble thing. Not everyone takes the time to go outside themselves and serve others. This program wouldn’t exist without you. You cared. Thank you.

—Warden Rich Cruickshank [paraphrased]

Warden Rich Cruickshank has just finished speaking at the graduation day of the 33rd rotation at Second Chance Pups, a program that pairs inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary with unwanted dogs in need of training.  There’s a round of applause from the audience. Gathered together in a small room at the prison are a wide assortment of people and animals: the leaders of the SCP program, the inmates and dogs who participated in this rotation, representatives from the prison and from various shelters, and other invited guests including my husband, Andy, and me.

At the front of the room is a table, on which Kim and Melissa have laid out all of the graduation necessities. On the right side of the table is a spread of soft drinks and cookies, a rare privilege for the handlers. On the left side of the table are the graduation folders that will be presented to the handlers. Each folder contains a certificate of completion, a studio portrait of the handler’s dog, and photos from the last graduation.

It is hard to put into words how graduation day makes me feel, recognizing the difference it makes in inmate trainers, understanding what it means to have the support from the warden and his staff in allowing this unique program to occur, experiencing the celebration of another successful class with Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups. It inspires me, seeing her dedication as a teacher, mentor, and advocate for both the men and dogs that are in difficult situations, and then turning out a positive experience. My feelings? Grateful, amazed, appreciative and respectful of opportunity to participate in the Second Chance Pups Program.

–Laurie Dethloff, Central Nebraska Humane Society

When Kim takes the floor, she thanks guests from the shelters in Aurora, Beatrice, and Grand Island, as well as other supporters. It’s the biggest turnout ever, she says. Kim also mentions a new company started by Scott Dinslage in Seward: K9 Supply and Rescue, which promotes itself as “the only dog supply store created to raise money for dog rescues”.

After this short prelude, Kim turns to the graduates themselves. The protocol, she explains, is for each dog to come to the front with its handler(s) when called. She explains that most of the dogs received both a primary and secondary handler, so that when if the primary handler is unavailable for some reason, the secondary handler will step in so that the dog won’t need to be kenneled.

ELLA

She sits when her handler tells her to, but her attention is immediately drawn to Kim’s purse. (For privacy, most handlers will not be identified by name.) Her handler explains that Ella can sniff out treats everywhere. He didn’t know at first if she’d follow directions, but it’s been pleasure to work with her, and whoever gets Ella will be pleased. In fact, Ella had already been chosen for adoption by her foster parent before going into the prison dog-training program. Ella likes all dogs and especially took to the female SCP volunteers. She shows no hurry to go back to her seat, preferring to sniff her handler’s shoes.

Before calling the next dog, Kim draws attention to Ella’s slight cough. She explains that a version of kennel cough had spread through all dogs during this rotation, and says that they all received medication. Ella caught the cough last and is just finishing up her medication, which she doesn’t mind taking as long as it’s covered with peanut butter. Veterinarian bills are actually the most expensive part of the SCP program.

VADER

One of his handlers tells about how Saunders County Lost Pets trapped the two-year-old lab mix in a corn field. Vader started out shy, he says, but then opened up as he learned to trust. He’s very playful, high energy, and fun to work with. During training, he was funny. He just wanted to run and play. He’s much faster than he looks. “If a door is open, he’ll run. Once he gets out, he’s gone.” Thanks to intensive training, the handlers believe, “Someone is getting a new dog.”

As Vader and his handlers take a seat, Kim says that someday when SCP has lots of money, she’d like to DNA test the dogs in the program. This would help them know more about the dogs and how to help them better.

BELLA

Bella_MeanFace
Geno demonstrates Bella’s “mean” face

Her primary handler, Geno, presents her background with a dose of humor: “Here we have a 2011/2012 Bella model. Standard everything. A little front edge damage. We were told she had injured her front paw. It only bothers her when she wakes up, if she walks too much, or if she gets too cold. Bella is pretty much always waking up from naps. She demands love, she’ll look at you and expect to be loved. She’s been spoiled and loves being held. Bella has a good face and a mean face.” Some of the inmates call out, “Show her mean face!”, and Geno tucks Bella’s upper lip behind her lower teeth, producing a comical grimace. Geno continues: “She loves food and is very treat-oriented. She won’t try to eat your food, but she will stare at you.” Geno also reveals how much they’ve grown to care for her, ending his speech by saying, “She’s one of the best dogs I’ve had and I’ll miss her a lot.”

As Bella and her handlers take a seat, Kim and Melissa mention the photo of Bella that Andy had posted online. Prior to my running this series on SCP Pups, Andy had posted his best SCP photos to his Facebook page. Someone who saw Bella’s photo on Facebook posted it to an image sharing site where it was viewed 1.5 million times in one day. At the graduation, Kim and Melissa tell the audience that Bella’s photo led to donations of a few hundred dollars, toys, and bones.

DIXIE/(renamed PENNY by owner)

Dixie_Handler
Penny (aka Dixie) enjoys one last ride in her handler’s arms before saying goodbye

>She immediately jumps onto a chair. Her handlers describe her as a prima-donna. “She’s smart and will try your patience. She might not do anything if she don’t feel like it. If you ask ‘what did I say,’ she’ll do the last command.” She’s young, maybe one year old. She likes to run around and get into everything. They’d diagnose her as ADHD. At the same time, she also sat with them when reading, typing, or doing other sedentary activities. She’s also highly food motivated and “will stand on her head for a bowl of food.” Her new owner-to-be plans to train her as a therapy dog. The handlers think this will be good for her.

BAXTER

His handlers describe him as part Billy goat: “He’ll eat paper, books, anything.” He also loves water: “He’ll stand and walk to get water from a squirt bottle.” The handlers thank each other for being of help when Baxter was a handful. Then they go on to label Baxter as a “big knucklehead and lover, who likes to lean on you.” They mention that Baxter loves to play ball and they caution, “If you don’t play fetch, Baxter will get some attitude. Neither handler is worried about how Baxter will react to being separated from them. He likes everyone. And he enjoys cuddling: “When sleeping, he just won’t let you sleep but will roll up on you and sleep with you. Thinks he’s a lap dog.”

As Baxter and his handlers take a seat, Kim asks them if they wrote about Baxter’s passion for playing ball in his “owner manual”. The primary handler shakes his head and says he’d try to remember to add it. Many of the handlers write letters, sometimes several pages in length, for their dogs’ new owners.

BOOMER

His handlers call him “a little crazy” and announce that “he likes to hunt mice”. They provide some vitals: Boomer is around two or three years old. He’s part collie and Husky and used to be an outdoor farm dog. He’s possessive and a scrapper, probably because he had to fight for food. He wants to be the boss. With more work he will learn self control. A single guy would probably be good: take him for drives and fishing and stuff. Boomer stayed on the  bunk whenever his handler was around, except if he heard ice or the drinking fountain. His handler took him to school one day and Boomer took off and was found standing at the fountain drinking water.

As Boomer and his handlers take a seat, Kim mentions that there are now mice-hunting courses for dogs. Many dog breeds were bred to rid farms of rodents, and such programs provide opportunities for owners to develop this skill in their dogs. Kim isn’t sure whether real mice are used.

REGGIE

The graduate list nearing the end. Reggie’s handler has been a volunteer with SCP longer than any handler in the current rotation, having been with the program almost since it began. Reggie is his fifty-eighth dog. Reggie was an owner surrender. “Reggie was a real pleasure to work with. His personality has changed since he came. He loves toys and wants them whenever he sees them. He loves Kim and Melissa. Whenever he sees them, he whines to be with them. He’s really vocal and really loyal. If he doesn’t want to do something, he’ll wait but then reluctantly do it. If he wants attention, he’ll bark.” His primary handler shares the news that Reggie will be moving to South Dakota that night and will have his own room. Before the two handlers step down, they show off Reggie’s skills: SIT, PLAY DEAD, and ROLL OVER. Reggie’s favorite position is ON THE GROUND.

RIPLEY

Ripley_Thomas
Thomas says goodbye to Ripley as other handlers also prepare to part with their dogs

Ripley’s handler, Thomas, gives the audience insight into the quiet English lab’s transformation. She was a breeder dog. She spent most of her life not knowing much. When she was brought to the penitentiary, she was friendly but shy. “It was fun to watch her come out of her shell. She used to growl off dogs but now will sniff and be curious. She’ll be one of those dogs that will watch Momma cook food. She loves food. She also loves to cuddle.” Her handler calls her a sweetheart and his favorite of the eight dogs he’s trained for SCP.

Graduation day is my favorite.  I try to go each rotation. The pets do so well.  And they always remember us at SCLP in Wahoo too.  Gives me the best feeling to partner with such a wonderful organization and to find more homes for more pets through this networking.

–Debora Wilcox, Sanders County Lost Pets

The graduating class of the 33rd rotation of Second Chance Pups
The graduating class of the 33rd rotation of Second Chance Pups

After all the teams have received their graduation certificates, Kim asks if there are questions or comments. A few handlers stand up to thank the SCP volunteers for bringing the program to the inmates. “It helps us in more ways than you can imagine.” At one point, Geno jokes that Bella wants to say something. We all look in their direction and see her asleep in his arms. Guests from the shelters add their thanks, and offer encouragement and praise to the inmates. Andy also speaks up. He voices our thoughts about how much the program has impressed us, and how much we appreciate the opportunity we were given to attend some of the sessions. When all comments are done, there’s time for ones to eat and mingle, and for group and individual photos, before the inmates leave to enjoy their last hour or so with their dog. The rest of us begin the process of exiting the prison.

Within about an hour, Andy and I return to the penitentiary to meet up with SCP volunteers. We’re all escorted an area called the turnkey, where the handlers straggle in with dogs and their supplies. Items bought for specific dogs have to be returned now, such as Ella’s medication and Bella’s Thundershirt, to be passed on to the dogs’ new owners. Collars and leashes are also returned to be used with future SCP dogs

This is it, the climax of every rotation: when the handlers say their final farewells to the dogs who have been in their care for the past nine weeks. Some of the handlers are emotional: “I’m going to miss you.” “I’m too in love with you.” “Sad to say goodbye.” Others are more light-hearted: “What?! She’s leaving?!” “Now I need a nap.” There’s fumbling with harnesses. There are last reminders about which dogs get along, because they will be transported in groups to the building where they will meet their new families. Naturally, there’s much petting and hugging.

Bella_Allison
Allison has the honor of taking Bella to her new owner

When the last handler leaves, the eight dogs are divided among the three SCP volunteers and Corporal Gowan. Kim gets caught in a tangle of leashes. Eventually we’re out in the parking lot, where the dogs are loaded into vehicles. Andy asks if we can take Bella, and so we do. I enjoy having this calm and cute dog on my lap during the drive to a building down the road from the penitentiary.

Melissa was kind to answer so many of our questions.  We told her we were interested and Melissa told us that Ripley would be available to come to our home for a visit, so that we might get a better idea of how things might work. We scheduled a visit for a week or so later, and Melissa (and her husband) brought Ripley to our home. The weekend went very well and we did a lot of talking on our end.  There was something special about Rip—those beautiful eyes and a sweet soul.  Ling found her long-lost sister in Ripley!  We told Melissa we wanted to adopt her!  She ended up coming for an additional weekend before her adoption day of April 1.  With each visit it was harder to take her back to the program, but we were grateful for all of the love and training that she was receiving while there.

—Ripley’s New Mom

When we arrive, Andy and I remain outside with Bella to give her a chance to potty. On entering the building, we see the adoptive families sitting in a semi-circle. Some have already been united with their new dogs. Most have already been introduced to their dogs at previous meet-and-greets, but Reggie’s adoptive mom is being united with him for the first time and is crying from happiness. A gentleman calls out Bella’s name and eagerly takes her from me.

Dixie_Chair
Penny (aka Dixie) knows she’s a star

After the dogs have been adorned with new bandanas, and their families given a supply of food (donated by Nature’s Variety) and an adoption packet, Kim begins the orientation. The first topic is potty training. She is interrupted by Penny, who grabs the spotlight by jumping onto a chair. Kim observes that this is her favorite spot. Penny’s new owner smiles and says, “Then we’ll just sit together.” Kim continues. The dogs will be in a new situation and so will need to start over with potty training. Kim advises to begin right way. Do it every hour. Train for a week. By then, the dogs should be adjusted. The fewer accidents the dogs have, the easier the adjustment will be.

Reggie_OwnerHug
Reggie in the arms of his new owner

As Kim moves into a discussion of kenneling, Reggie begins to whines. Kim says, “Yes, I know, Reggie. I know. We all need to make sure you’re heard.” Then she proceeds to explain how dogs should be kenneled when the owner isn’t home.  All of the dogs are used to kennels, although Bella will go through an adjustment stage. All the dogs will eventually get to where they won’t need their kennels when left alone, but owners should start out with the kennel.

Items to use for kenneling: nylon bones, which are pretty much indestructible, antlers, and Kong toys. Peanut butter, yogurt, or other mashed stuff can get put into a Kong toy. Ropes shouldn’t be left with unattended dogs.

As Kim finishes her list, Bella starts to bark. Kim asks her, “Do you want an antler?” Chews are handed out to all the dogs. Bella tries to take two antlers and is told, “You can’t have both.” Bella tries again to steal a second antler. “Are you being feisty? Go, Bella!”

Kim talks about training collars. As she demonstrates how a choke collar works, she says it’s a check chain if you use it right. If you don’t, it’s a choke chain. The default collar for SCP is a martingale. They’re easier to use. But a dog in need of more intensive training might need a check chain.

Reggie_Owner
Reggie brings a smile to the face of his new mom

The hardest part was waiting the month until I could meet Reggie and bring him home! I burst into tears when I first laid my eyes on him. It was love at first sight for me. We had a long drive home, nine hours. I was prepared for problems, but he was wonderful in the truck. I’d recommend the program for everybody that is interested in adoption. The dogs are socialized and trained with so much care and concern. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity. Reggie is a perfect fit for us. I just love him, his sister dog loves him, and his kitty is “working” on it! This is a happy beginning.

—Reggie’s New Mom

Finally, Kim explains the adoption packets that have been given to each family. Everyone has received their dog’s medical records, which they should put in a safe place; Kim does not keep copies. Helpful paperwork on dog care is also provided, along with coupons, including one for 30 days of free pet insurance. The final item in the adoption packets is a certificate, which all eight dogs earned earlier this week by displaying “good manners at home and in the community” through their mastery of the 10-steps of the Canine Good Citizen test. The test, developed by the American Kennel Club, is “recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior.”

The adoption packet also contains notes from the handlers about what commands the dogs were taught. Kim recommends that owners develop awareness of their new dog and are consistent with commands. Then she goes over a list of commands that the dogs should all know, choosing Baxter as her demo dog. Kim and Baxter make most of the commands look easy: Kim gives the command, and Baxter obeys. Sometimes Kim has to repeat a command, but for the most part Baxter proves that he has been well-trained. Then Kim gets the rest of the dogs involved. She puts treats in front of each dogs and orders them to LEAVE IT. But most are too excited and don’t have the patience to wait. Their owners try to hold them back and command LEAVE IT repeatedly. Some dogs wolf down their treats prematurely; others hold off until given the release command. Bella When Kim tries to show GET IT, BRING IT, GIVE IT, and DROP IT, the dogs remain wound up and just want to play with the balls Kim put on the floor. But as Kim continues on down the list of commands, the dogs return to a state of calm. Kim wraps up her instruction about commands by emphasizing to the families: Don’t let the dogs think they’re boss; you’re the boss.

I had a letter from a little girl one time that brought tears to my eyes. Her other puppy had died, and her mommy finally got her a dog from SCP and it was the best doggy in the world. She had trouble and she ate some linoleum, but now… she’s been doing well. And just by the end of the letter I was crying.”

—Thomas, SCP Handler

Vader_Family
Vader with his new family

Then Kim refers again to the packets. Each handler has asked for photos and update letters. The dogs have meant a lot to the handlers over their nine weeks of living with and training them, and they enjoy hearing about their new lives. It wasn’t easy for the handlers to say goodbye to their dogs earlier today, but they are clearly proud to have helped prepare them for their forever homes.

As the clock reaches 6:30, the evening winds down. Families mingle, then gather supplies and, with leash in hand, head out with their new dog. Another rotation of the SCP program has officially ended, although Kim and Melissa will be available to answer any questions that might come up as the dogs settle into their new homes.

I hope you have enjoyed a peek into the SCP program. Later this year, I’ll contact SCP volunteers for updates on the handlers from this rotation, a few of whom were close to being eligible for work release or parole. I’ll also check back with families to see how their new pet member has adjusted.

In the comments, please say congrats to the graduating handlers and dogs of the 33rd rotation. And, if you’re impressed by what you’re read about the SCP program, take time to share LAA’s posts, donate, and/or offer to volunteer.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As of this post, Boomer is still looking for the perfect home. He originally came from another organization but SCLP took him after his first rotation when he didn’t get adopted. When Boomer finished his second rotation in May, and remained the only dog not adopted, CNHS took him for further training and exposure. Boomer has a strong personality and lots of energy, but also enjoys meeting and being around people.

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