Thursday, January 14, 2010

Prisoners train dogs to serve community

The offenders at the Shakopee women's prison who train future service dogs hope their work will give back to the community.

By PAT PHEIFER, Star Tribune

Last update: January 13, 2010 - 8:29 AM

Jen'ea Weinand's eyes sparkle as she puts Scout, a 3-year-old golden Lab, through his paces in the visiting room at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee.

Weinand, a petite 28-year-old from St. Paul, is serving a 31 1/2-year sentence for murder and assault in the shooting deaths of two roofers at an Austin, Minn., motel in 2000.

Scout has been at the prison on and off since he was about 6 months old. He is one of three Labs currently being trained by eight offenders at Shakopee for Sunshine Service Dogs Inc., a nonprofit organization in Luck, Wis.

"I really enjoy this," Weinand said as she walked Scout in a wide circle, practicing sit, down and stay and dispensing treats from her fistful of kibble. "It gives me a chance to show what I can do. It gives me a chance to show I can give back and can make a change in other people's lives."

The dogs ultimately will be adopted out to help people with mobility issues or hearing loss, to do seizure-detection or become therapy dogs at schools, hospitals or nursing homes.

There's no cost to the prison. Lori Peper-Rucks, executive director of Sunshine Service Dogs provides the food, veterinary care and other supplies that the dogs need.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) also has a dog training program at the Faribault prison, which houses male offenders, although it is not affiliated with Sunshine Service Dogs. At least 16 other states also have prison dog programs.

At Shakopee, the only women's prison in the state, each of the three dog has two handlers. Two other assistants help out where needed.

The dogs come to the prison when they're about 6 months old and stay anywhere from a year to a year and a half, sometimes longer. They live with the offenders 24/7 and accompany them to meals, to work and even to the bathroom. The offenders teach the dogs everything from house training and basic obedience to tasks such as helping clients take off their shoes, pick up fallen items, turn on lights and answer the phone.

The offenders know from the start that the dogs aren't pets; they're being trained to do a job. Still, there are "big-time tears" when it's time to let a dog go, Peper-Rucks said.

K-9 teachers

The dogs teach their humans a lot, too.

"Being in prison and being able to give something so honorable, it's an amazing gift, said Heather Ecklund as she worked with Koudos, an 11-month-old chocolate Lab. Ecklund, 30, is serving a 36-year sentence for second-degree murder. "To have somebody take that chance on you is an amazing gift also."

"I came in here at 18 and it taught me a lot about responsibility," said Amanda Anderson, 24, who is serving time for second-degree unintentional murder. "Taking care of a dog, I never realized how much work it was until I was actually doing it. When you're having a bad day, you still have to have a good attitude. It helped me keep going, to grow up in lots of different ways."

Peper-Rucks approached the Shakopee prison about training future service dogs in 2004 and in September of that year brought the first dogs to the facility. She placed six dogs last year and is always on the hunt for more funding so she can do more.

Cindy Lee Galvan, 54, is a transfer from an Alaska prison, serving a 60-year sentence for murder. She's been involved in the dog-training program since it started and has trained seven dogs. She currently has a rambunctious 11-month-old chocolate Lab named Kit, who last week came bursting into the visiting room barking and straining on his leash.

"He is totally a handful," Galvan said. "He's got a couple of issues, as you can see. But being a challenge makes it a little more of a challenge for me.

"I guess the story is the same for a lot of us," she said. "You do things that you know are really bad and you don't know how to fix them. And at the time, you don't really care because that's who you are then.

"Then you grow up and you mature ... and then you have the opportunity to maybe, maybe, help somebody else out a little bit. We know that one dog and one program isn't going to do that but that's what we can do right now. That's what we can do today, so that's what we do."

Galvan helped train Max, a 129-pound black Lab who lives with Steve Drewek in Green Bay, Wis. Drewek, 26, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Max helps Drewek stay active, pulling his chair through the snow or along hiking trails that might not otherwise be accessible, fetching items in their apartment and providing unconditional love and friendship. Last month, Max saved Drewek from death or serious injury when he braced himself in front of Drewek's wheelchair when he saw it sliding into the path of a car that ran a red light.

"I can't see living without him," Drewek said.

K-9 therapy

Maddie, a 3-year-old golden retriever therapy dog, also was trained by the women at Shakopee. She now goes to work everyday with Christy Johnson, recreation/therapy director at Parmly LifePointes in Chisago City, Minn.

"If a resident is having an off day, she just goes and sits with them," Johnson said. "We've seen dementia patients remember her name. It's not supposed to happen, those types of things. They don't remember our names, but dementia patients call out her name."

Sandy Hand, transition coordinator at the Shakopee prison, said the dog training program fits well with the DOC's philosophy of restorative justice.

"One woman went to Lori [Peper-Rucks], and said I've taken almost every group there is to take here at Shakopee, anger management, resiliency, victim impact, but it wasn't until I was in the program that I got to utilize some of these skills.

"They're contributing to the community even while being here," she said.

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Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992

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