From Dog Pen to State Pen
A Tale of RescueBy Marsha Snider
In the early summer of 2009, WHTCNO received a call about a Westie found by a nice couple involved in cat rescue. They watched as the dog had almost been hit twice by a car. The skinny dog with a dirty and matted coat willingly went to the gentleman. They agreed to foster the dog and they called him Charlie. The adoptive parents quickly noticed a few things about Charlie. He liked a schedule and was a dog of routine. Although he was very friendly, he did not like anything touching his tail, and when stressed, he would spin in a circle and attack his tail. He wasn’t aggressive towards people, but if you got in the way of the spin behavior, chances were good that you might get bit! Holding him on your lap was scary because you never knew when he might go into the spin and bite behavior.
When we initially took Charlie to the vet, he was very stressed and almost acted like a feral dog. I felt the vet was questioning why we didn’t put him down, but we all felt there was something there. The vet thought the dog was only a year old and I felt this little guy deserved a chance—his issues weren’t his fault.
Because Charlie’s behavior issues needed to be addressed before we could think of placing him, club member Deb Duncan was contacted. It appeared that Charlie had severe OCD due to his spinning and his tail mutilating behavior. Deb believed he did not have true OCD behavior. As a puppy he developed a default behavior for stress and anxiety related situations. She believed the default behavior had become strongly patterned but could be diffused. It got so bad at one point when Charlie was alone he chewed his tail so much that it looked like raw meat. Five months had passed and we were not having a lot of success finding a foster home that had the time to work more intensely with the behaviors, let alone find a forever home for this young dog. Fortunately, one evening a light bulb went off!
Our local Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County (AWL) works with our local correctional institute with a dog training program called “Caring Companions”. This is a ten-week training program where inmates train a group of seven dogs to complete basic behaviors. Many inmates want to participate in the program, but it is a very selective process. Two inmates work together with one dog. The dog stays with the inmates in their cell and spends the majority of the day with them. When an opening in the program becomes available, the inmates must be carefully matched since they will become new cellmates. There is not much turnover, but if the men get in trouble of any kind, they are out of the program. They are required to keep a weekly journal of the training skills and the behavior of the dog. Failure to keep the journal will also cause them to be dismissed. Even though Charlie was not a dog that the Animal Welfare League had taken in, I had helped them with Westie rescues in previous years, so I thought they might help me out. They agreed to let Charlie be in the program, but it wasn’t without stipulations.
Debbie, the shelter director for AWL, made me aware that there were no promises. They could be called at any time day or night to come and get Charlie if there was a problem. If his behaviors were too severe, he would not stay in the program. For example, Charlie would spend his time on the cell block with his handlers and among the other inmates, but if he bit someone who was not a handler in the program, there was a chance that inmate could sue the state. It could be risky having a dog in the program that had biting issues. Feeling we had nothing to lose, I agreed to their terms. I was thankful that Debbie gave Charlie to her best handler. She told me that she does the training on Wednesday mornings and I could call for an update in the afternoon. Wednesdays became judgment day! I feared the call and actually, I feared a call every day of his first week. The first call I received I was informed that there was good news and bad news. I thought that I was going to have to go and pick him up! The bad news was that he kept the entire cell block up with his barking the first couple of nights, the good news was that he finally settled down. He had only bitten his handler a few times and he was given another week!
Charlie remained in the program and on the eighth week I got to go visit him so that I could observe his behaviors in order to have an idea of what to tell prospective owners. I would get to meet and interview his trainer and the psychology assistant that works with the inmates. It was a little scary knowing that some of the men in the program had killed another person.
I survived the intake process and was taken to the office of the Psychology Assistant, Patty, who explained more about the impact of the program on the inmates. Many of the guys don’t have visitors so it gives them someone to love and it is also a point of pride. Many of the inmates have a lot of baggage and were often beaten themselves and this experience gives them good life skills in learning to treat animals, children and adults with respect. The week that I visited was the week before they would receive their evaluations. When I asked if they were evaluating the dog or the handler, I was told that the handler went through a thorough evaluation with Debbie and Patty. Many of them are often nervous about this—they don’t want to be dropped from the program. You must visualize Debbie who might weigh 80 pounds soaking wet dealing with a gentleman who has been alone on death row for 25 years and she is making him sweat. The inmates take this very seriously. Most of the dogs in this program have been unadoptable for many different reasons, so the handlers take the training to heart. The inmates realize that the dogs’ lives depend on the job they do and they try to do their best. I kept asking if there was something I could give to Charlie’s trainers to show my appreciation but prison policy prohibits any gift. According to Patty, the inmates truly receive their own reward when they are able to rehabilitate the dog.
Patty has seen many dogs go through the program in the past eleven years, so I was interested in knowing her initial impression of Charlie. She said that he was totally unique—they never had another dog like him. She did feel, however, that they would be able to make a difference with him. He required a lot of behavior modification, and once he turned the corner and made human relationships, he progressed quickly. He was a busy dog and required a lot of distraction to keep him from his tail spinning behavior. Initially, they would distract him when he went into the behavior by saying his name and giving him a treat. He quickly learned to use this behavior just to get treats! The hardest part of his training was socializing him with other dogs. In fact, the day I observed the training there was a very large mixed breed that he wanted to constantly attack, but by the end of the program, they could be side by side.
After talking to Patty, it was time for Charlie and one of his handlers to come in the room. I had actually had Charlie at my house for five days and was very cautious after having been bitten twice. Again, Charlie was not an aggressive dog, but I was in the way during his tail spinning activity! As the door opened, Charlie came running up to me and jumped right on my lap. I had no fear of him at all. He allowed me to touch is tail without any problem, and he also let me put him on his back and rub his belly. I couldn’t believe the change. I knew there was a Westie in there somewhere. When Charlie was at my house, I had to put away all the toys with squeakers. He would get the toy and shake it for the kill and would not give it up. He would become very agitated. I warned Debbie of this behavior, so they slowly introduced squeaky toys. I was in disbelief when they pulled out a toy and began squeaking it and he did not want to leave my lap. When he finally did get down, he played with the toy and after a period of time his handler told him to drop it and he did!
I had the opportunity to interview one of Charlie’s trainers before class began. He has been incarcerated for seven years and said training the dogs is the closest thing there is to reality—it helps pass time. He commented that he feels like the trainers are the dog’s only chance and he takes the training personally. He does not have children, so he feels the dogs he trains are a reflection on him. When asked about the benefits of being a trainer in the program, he acknowledged that there were some privileges such as having more opportunity for movement, getting pulled away from the negative of the interior and being provided with a positive routine. He felt that one of his biggest challenges was not only training the dog, but also in this case he had to train the inmates how to respond to Charlie. He was presented with the challenge of building a relationship of trust and love with Charlie. He wanted to send a message to him that ‘this was not just another place he landed for a while’. He really felt Charlie needed a sense of routine, frequent ‘tasks’, and a sense of belonging. He mentioned how hard it is on the trainers when the dogs leave, and he is always hopeful that the new owners will provide updates. I asked him what he wanted the new owners to know about Charlie and he said “he has a heart this big!”
We joined the other handlers and their dogs and walked across the prison yard to the training classroom. All of the dogs were required to sit before they exited and were heeling as they walked across the yard. Debbie started the class with everyone in a circle, and she took turns greeting each dog and discussing how the past week went with the handlers. The two trainers took turns handling their dog during the class which resembled any other basic obedience class—minus the correction officers! There were a few new handlers in the group and Debbie, who is as big as a minute, was not afraid to nicely get in their faces if they were not following the proper training methods! This was group-picture week, and it was rewarding to watch this group of men so proud to be in the picture with their dogs. They were concerned that one of the trainers had to go the infirmary, and they didn’t want the picture taken without him. Another pair of handlers was working with littermates and requested a special picture with just the four of them and their two dogs. Debbie informed them about the new dogs that were coming in the next group, and they were all excited to hear about the new class. Charlie’s trainers were promised a reprieve—they were getting one of the easier dogs to work with!
I was given a copy of the journal one of Charlie’s trainers kept. He tells of what he went through to get his tail healed and how proud Charlie was to wear his e-collar. Personally, I never thought they would be able to get it on him! The handler tells of trying to get Charlie to stop his spinning behavior—“I tried to touch his nose and tell him to stop. Bad idea—I got bit. Totally my fault.” He talks of the mental notes he made that caused the spinning behavior—boredom and aggravation. He describes Charlie’s grooming care but recommends ‘you get to know Charlie before attempting any of this’. He prepared a special message to the new owners. What follows is an excerpt from the handler’s journal.
Charlie has a good heart and just wants to love and be loved. Before, probably no one had the 24 hours seven days a week time and care to do it. The job had to be done from the heart. Like terriers, he’s very energetic, alert and curious and he has one heck of a personality and a handsome little face too. He loves to go for walks or just say “Charlie, want to go bye-bye” and he’s up and ready. It’s evident that Charlie hasn’t been in a home that things worked out. Please give him time to adjust. Charlie is a great companion and he was treated with a lot of love and care. During his stay here, he has made nothing but progress and we hope it stays like that. Thank you for welcoming Charlie into your home.
It was amazing to see the transformation in Charlie. I am so thankful to the Trumbull County Animal Welfare League and the Trumbull Correctional Institute for allowing Charlie to be a part of the Caring Companions program. Thanks to Deb Duncan for the MANY phone conversations to help us understand Charlie’s behaviors and address his needs. Thanks to the WHWTCNO and the national club for providing funds for Charlie’s medical needs including shots, neutering and treatment for his tail. Charlie is in his forever home now and he has not left the prison life far behind. He was adopted by one of the Correction Officers who used to have a Westie. He observed Charlie over the ten-week program and fell in love with him! Almost everyone who initially met Charlie felt there was no hope for him. So many people pulled together and made this such a happy rescue tale, not only for Charlie but for all of those who helped to find that Westie that was hidden deeply within this sweet young dog.