In a small grassy yard surrounded by high chain-link fences and spirals of barbed wire, a handful of men play with dogs. They play fetch and run the dogs around the yard to tire them out, their day’s worth of pent-up energy making the dogs difficult to command.
“Beeson, stay,” commands Kyle Sweeney, a resident of the Southeastern Probation Treatment Alternative Correctional Facility (SEPTA), speaking to the youthful male terrier mix in front of him. Beeson, a mutt peppered with gradients of light orange, black and white fur, protests with a shrill whimper. “Stay,” asserts Sweeney, whose right lower leg is embellished with a tattoo of a crawling black and red scorpion. This time his command is effective.
The sounds of this exchange blend with the clamor of other men working excitable dogs. Because they have already had a long day’s work or attended instructional classes, the men aren’t nearly as fresh as the dogs now getting their first chance to play. Despite the contrast in energy, the men shake off their day and patiently work with the canines. Both men and dogs have been waiting for this opportunity to play all day.
As the sun sets behind the hills, the yard begins to empty slowly. The dogs and their resident trainers, both wearing worn expressions, head towards their rooms.
Nestled between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, just outside of Nelsonville, Ohio, SEPTA is a community-based correctional facility, which, by design, has security looser than that of a prison and tighter than that of a halfway house. Such facilities serve as places for incarcerated people to serve their time and rebuild themselves. This one houses only non-violent offenders, offering a variety of educational classes in addition to outside work programs that allow residents — as inmates are referred to in the facility — to work a full-time job while serving their sentences. Recently, SEPTA became the first of the 14 community-based correctional facilities in Ohio to offer a dog-fostering program.
“You can see a change in them,” said Brenda Mohney, administrative assistant at SEPTA, speaking of the residents involved with the dog-training program. “Even their structure of time is a lot different. They have to make sure the dogs are taken care of even when they’re not in the facility. It’s helping them become more structured.”
Mohney, who is also the supervisor for the dog program, said it provides a rare opportunity for the residents to slip away from the tough-guy routine inherent to life in any correctional facility. “You’d be surprised by some of these hard-asses that soften up around these dogs,” added Jeremy Race, a resident and primary handler for a dog named Reno.
“There’s time when I’ll take [Beeson] out and he’ll just lay on my bed with me and I’ll talk to him like he’s a person because I know he isn’t going to talk back or go tell anyone what I said,” said Kyle Sweeney.
For other residents, working with the dogs provides skills they can apply to their lives once they leave the facility. “I had a child six days before I got locked up,” said Jeremy Race, a resident. “I have only got to see her maybe half a dozen times since then, and it’s been over a year. Taking care of these dogs is helping me with my patience levels. Because you can’t talk to them — just like you can’t talk to a baby, they can’t talk back to you. You learn how to take care of their needs without verbal contact.”
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Dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt, loose jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat to match, Wayne Boyd is the glue that connects the dogs with their handlers. “He is Athens County’s dog whisperer,” said Sweeney with an honest laugh. Every week, Boyd takes the dog program residents out into the recreational yard, onto a flat patch of grass along the side of the hill abutting the yard. There, he teaches residents by example with his expertly trained dog.
“Who here thinks that’s a pretty good dog?” says Boyd to the circle of approximately fifteen residents around him as he points to his dog and he obeys a command. “That dog right there started out right here,” he says, pointing to a handler’s dog. “Everything he does, he started out at the end of this leash. There’s absolutely no reason why you gentlemen can’t get every dog in here as good or better than that.”
Residents break off and work with their dogs individually. Each dog has two or three residents at a time, switching off every few minutes to ensure that everyone can work with every dog. Boyd goes from dog to dog helping each group on specific techniques — today is teaching them to stay. “Smile at your dog. Let your dog know that it’s done something correct,” says Boyd in his Appalachian accent.
The men in the yard continue working with their dogs long after darkness falls, training by the dim yellow-orange glow of the incandescent lights affixed to the stone walls of the facility.
“It kind of takes you out of the reality of being here for a little bit,” remarks resident Shane Dye, a man with a collection of black and white tattoos on his left forearm and a pair of bright red Michael Jordan basketball shoes upon his feet. “You get to hang out with your buddy all day.”
Those on both sides of the leash benefit. All of the dogs in the program are from the Friends of Shelter Dogs organization; often they have raised red flags at the county shelter. Many have aggression issues or are hard to control. In other words, they’re the dogs that rarely get adopted. As is the custom for dog shelters, after a certain period of time, those that are not adopted are euthanized. For the dogs that make it to the SEPTA Correctional Facility, this is their last chance to be adopted.
“This is our recovery; it’s their recovery too. It’s them getting out of prison,” said Nathan Decker, the current head resident of the dog program. “It saves them as much as it saves us.” The program offers an environment in which both dogs and handlers have a chance to start anew.
“This for me is a new way of living my life,” says Sweeney. “It’s just changed everything.”
Some residents have even considered continuing to foster dogs once they leave the facility. “Maybe I’ll go to a kennel and help when I can,” said Shane Dye as he reminisced about his own dog back home.
The ultimate goal of the program is to find these dogs loving homes. Every Saturday, a few of the residents take their dogs to the Friends of Shelter Dogs booth at a farmer’s market along the main commercial strip in Athens. On one recent Saturday, shopping carts rattled and car engines rumbled amongst the clamor of the farmer’s market. Rows of plants and gardening equipment sat to the right of the dogs and their handlers, while to the left, a couple promoted their alpaca farm — complete with a few alpacas in attendance. Two college-age girls approach Baby Girl, a two-year old black labrador retriever. Baby Girl wore a black and pink bandana that read, “adopt” and wagged her tail as the girls look down upon her with smiles. “This is your new dog, right?” says the handler to the girls. “Yeah, I wish,” replied one of the girls as they both laughed and petted Baby Girl.
Later in the afternoon, a young couple with two little girls approaches the booth. The girls meet Skeets, a brown and white spotted labrador retriever described by the residents as “an undercover badass.” He is often calm, but can have bouts of serious aggression when triggered. The girls pat Skeets while he sits contentedly on the concrete of the parking lot. They giggle and he calmly plays along. Their parents soon come upon their daughters laughing and smiling with the five-year-old lab, and ask to have some time with Skeets away from the crowd.
They take Skeets’ leash and walk him under the shade of a tree. The whole family gets down in a patch of grass and plays with the dog. Skeets keeps his cool as the girls play with him and their parents deliberate. After a few minutes the mother looks down at her daughters and asks, “Is he a good boy?” The younger daughter seems to reply with a small nod, too busy playing with Skeets to really consider what is being asked. “Do you think you want him to come home with us?” the mother asks, looking over at the father to ensure that would be ok. “Mhm,” responds the youngest daughter, hugging Skeets. The father then takes Skeet’s leash and walks him back towards the booth, his oldest daughter eagerly holding the leash with him as they start their journey home.
Decker, Skeets’s primary handler, later recounts his feelings as he watched the family from afar. “Ain’t nothing like the sense of entitlement that you get and the feeling that you get when one of your dogs gets adopted and you see the look on that little girl’s face. And that family that you just…” Decker pauses as he collects himself, “There ain’t no other feeling like that. That’s what drives me to keep doing it. I love it.”