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Prison program pairs puppies and perps

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By Tracy Harris

Building 7A at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange isn’t a typical prison 
dormitory. It is home to the prison’s only single-cell wing. Out of nearly 1,000 inmates, only 12 have single-bunk cells to themselves.

Well, not to themselves. They still have to share their cell — with a dog.

The inmates are handlers in Luther Luckett’s Camp Canine program, which trains dogs from the Oldham County Animal Shelter.

Camp Canine started in 2009 as a partnership between the shelter, the Humane Society of Oldham County and Luther Luckett.

Wendy Compton, a Kentucky Department of Corrections administrative specialist, and Sherry Taylor, a DOC correctional unit administrator, oversee the program. 

Compton said it is part of an initiative by the DOC to expand dog-related programs in state prisons.

While programs vary between prisons, the goal is to improve inmates personal skills by teaching patience, nurturing and self-confidence, and to provide employment opportunities upon release.

Camp Canine is a paid work assignment at Luther Luckett. 

When one of the dozen spots becomes available, the opening is posted to the inmate population. It is a privilege, and participants must maintain high standards of conduct, Compton said. 

Inmates in the program earn $2 a day, more than most other prison jobs.

HSOC staff members evaluate dogs’ behavior to determine which will enter the program. All dogs are sterilized and vaccinated.

There’s a dog crate inside each handler’s cell, and dogs accompany the handlers 24 hours a day.

Brandon Langley describes the prison as “optimum conditions” for a dog because there are people and other dogs around all the time. Langley is one of the programs original handlers.

“They don’t care that we’re poor and live in a little tiny house,” he said. “And we show them a lot of love.”

As he spoke, his dog, Celtic, climbed on the small twin bed in his cell, turned around three times and laid down. The 70-pound St. Bernard mix covered the entire bed. Dogs also have access to a large fenced area outside. Inmates are building a shelter in the space as well.

David Benson, a trainer at Duffy’s Dog Training Center in Jeffersonville, Ind., comes every two to four weeks to work with the handlers.

Training focuses on informal exercises in five areas — composure and grooming, visitor and animal control, food control, door control and walking behavior.

The dogs learn basic commands, but also learn good manners. Handlers teach them to not initiate physical contact, only eat what their handler offers or what’s in their bowl and not to walk through doorways or gates without permission. 

Handler Jerry Guenthner even teaches his dogs a “pat down” trick that he thinks gets a laugh out of potential adopters. 

Possibly the most surreal thing about seeing a prison wing full of dogs is how remarkably quiet it is. There’s no barking, no jumping and none of the chaos one would expect from 12 dogs being together.

Compton said most dogs are trained in the program for six to eight weeks, although dogs with fear issues often take longer — sometimes three or four months.

One former Camp Canine dog, Sweetie, literally crawled into the facility after being neglected. Inmates described Sweetie as scared of everything — but Sweetie walked out happy. Inmate handlers have worked with blind and deaf dogs, too.

“It’s like homeschooling,” Langley said. “We let them progress at their own pace.”

The dogs pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test at the end of their training, and inmates take pride that most of their dogs far exceed the test standards.

Some Camp Canine graduates become service dogs, others provide help in senior centers — and one sniffs out bedbugs for an exterminator. Potential adopters have the opportunity to meet with dogs and their handlers, and are encouraged to bring their children and family pets to the visit. Once adopted, handlers provide new owners with a bio of the dog, including schedules, routines, favorites and fears. 

“We operate on a system of full disclosure,” Langley said. 

The inmates earn special privileges — like their own cell — as part of Camp Canine, but it is clear the program means much more to them. They are proud parents of their charges, ready to show off their skills and praise their good behavior. It also provides a sense of normalcy, said Vontez King, who became a handler in September 2010.

“Every day here is rough,” he said, “but you’ve got a dog to wake up to.”