Every Monday morning, when I enter the correctional facility, walk through the metal detector, scanner, and guardroom, put on a body alarm and walk across the yard where hundreds of felons comingle, I ask myself “What am I doing here, and why do I continue to serve this population?” Some mornings are more of a challenge; when the temperatures hover around 32 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind howls across the razor-wire-surrounded correctional facility; then I walk into the “honors hall” where over 30 handlers and 15 at-risk shelter dogs await my arrival.
Once I see the anticipation in their eyes, my inner doubt and questions all melt away. “Good morning, gentlemen” I greet them, “What is the good word today?” I look each person in their eyes and ask them to give me “one” good word about the dog that has been entrusted to them. Most of them can readily provide a word: friendly, smart, willing to please, snuggly, teachable, stubborn—they call out, one by one. Just getting the participants to speak out individually is an accomplishment in itself, but well worth the effort, as it breaks through invisible inner walls and people begin to relax as I ask them about their dogs.
My role as lead instructor and consultant to the State of Missouri Department of Corrections “Puppies for Parole” program has helped me learn how to conduct very large classes with individuals who often cannot read, do not have a GED, and face language barriers, as well as intellectual or emotional barriers to their ability to learn and make good decisions. I have learned that through a concentrated effort to model the behavior that is expected, demonstrate each and every single detail in a manner that all the classroom participants can understand, and check with each individual on their level of understanding, a high level of respect and success is attained.
Gaining the trust of a broken dog, once its trust has been shattered, is difficult enough; building trust with broken human beings is near impossible. Yet, session after session, I can see the barriers of distrust melt away, and the lightbulb of hope switch on in their eyes. People with brooding faces and body language transform into people who have found a purpose and gain a new-found quality of life. The broken dogs help the broken people heal; the broken people help the broken dogs heal and learn to trust again. Without this trust, it is difficult for us to attain our goal for each dog.
People who have fallen so far from grace, believing that no one cares about them and have given up, begin to find a renewed reason to live. In doing so, they provide dogs a second chance at life. The dogs learn basic life and social skills necessary to survive in a human world of confusing expectations. My role is to gain enough of the confidence and respect of both humans and dogs that they can succeed. I must maintain a high level of professionalism in expectation of their best, and in turn, they give the dogs their best.
Working with shelter animals and sheltered people is another world unto itself. It is a world where respect must be earned by one’s words and actions being fair, consistent and firm. No negative, harsh words or actions can be tolerated, thus a level of professionalism is expected from each and every participant in the program. There is a climate of “Zero Tolerance” for any negative or harmful interactions.
The challenge of teaching both humans and canines in this type of setting is one of first gaining respect of the individual. This is accomplished by using no harsh measures, and the requirement that all skills must be taught with only the kindest and gentlest methods. Each small step forward is celebrated, and any step backward is considered a learning experience and a place to restart the teaching of the skill. In this statewide program, over 4,000 dogs have been saved.
Only with steadfast encouragement and positive reinforcement of each and every skill exhibited will the dogs learn and the offenders maintain their status as “handlers.” This is no small accomplishment in a harsh and intolerant institutional environment. It bears the same status as any profession gained (i.e., computer technology, welding, carpentry, plumbing, etc.)
Offender handlers respect their dog as the special individual it is. They learn to accept the dog with its strengths and shortcomings, including whatever baggage the dog brings upon its arrival. They learn to start from square one, and not worry about the past. Since we often do not know the past, we start with what we have on day one. In doing all these things, the humans become more reflective and accepting of themselves and the people around them. They learn to work as a team for the good of the dog. They learn how to communicate and relate on a totally different playing field, thus creating a better atmosphere for the entire facility, including interactions with the staff and officers.
It is like a ripple effect. The dog needs to learn the objectives that will make it more socially acceptable, more team-oriented, more trusting and more pleasant to be around. By teaching these things to the dogs, the humans actually transform these skills intrinsically and they become part of their behavior patterns. In essence, this world within a world, separate from contact with the outside world, as we know it, becomes a more humane world by providing socialization and learning skills to both species in order to survive outside the world of sheltering.
What more could we ask? We could ask, what happens then? Then, the offenders share what they have learned with the others in their lives: children, wives, parents, friends—most people have some outside connections. This is a triple crown of sorts, with multiple ripples of positive impact across many levels of life, including service to the community by saving a dog’s life and enriching the lives of the families who adopt the dogs. The shelter gains much-needed support by placing dogs in the program, thus the offenders are indirectly contributing and giving back to society. The next ripple touches the individual who adopts the dog into their life and family. It is the cycle of restorative justice in learning to be responsible for your actions, give back to society, think of someone other than yourself, and contribute to a cause for the greater good.
One might wonder why a professional certified instructor of canine life skills would donate so much time to those who could never pay for services. The bottom line is in how one approaches this profession. It is my goal to share whatever expertise I have gained in order to enrich the lives of others.
The fact of the matter is, in this occupation we need a frame of mind that in order to best serve the animal world, we must master the ability to serve and teach humans how to understand animals and their behavior. My plan includes not only continuing to develop this statewide program, but to also mentor other state correctional systems to emulate this model. In this manner of action, we can heal and save even more lives in the future. In this way, the work and memory of Rebecca Park’s life continues to live on in the spirit of humane interactions with both animals and humans.
By being selected as recipient of the Rebecca Park scholarship, I plan to honor and emulate the legacy of positive interactions and professionalism, thus continuing the mission that Rebecca shared by blessing those in her life and her community with her grace and skill.
Heddie Leger, ABCDT-L2, ADT, CDT, CHES, CPDT-KA
The Pawzone, LLC – Canine Coaching and Care