In 1996, at the age of 20, Robert Gerle landed in prison. A series of felonies had climaxed in an aggravated assault charge when he took a police officer's gun and left him bound by his own handcuffs.
At a time when most people are just beginning their adult lives, Gerle found himself at something of an ending. A 24-year sentence in front of him, it was difficult to imagine how he would fill his days.
Within a few years, Gerle began teaching math and science inside Arrowhead Correctional Center's GED program in Cañon City. He gained satisfaction from helping other inmates, but after 3 years, it was waning.
Around that time, a rumor began circulating that the "dog program" was coming to Arrowhead. Gerle didn't get too excited. As he points out, "99.9 percent of prison rumors are complete horse hockey."
Then a transferred inmate showed up from the nearby Territorial Correctional Facility. He'd been in the dog program there and soon would be helping facilitate one at Arrowhead or so Gerle heard.
It wasn't until minor renovations began on one wing of cells on the living unit, with bunks raised to fit kennels and a potty yard constructed outside, that Gerle believed there'd soon be dogs bounding about. Along with many others who met the prerequisites six months of good behavior, possession of a diploma or GED, and non-sex offender status he submitted a formal application to join the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program.
The program would rescue dogs from shelters and desperate situations, vaccinate them and then spay or neuter them. At that point, they'd be turned over to inmates to train for sale as companion, service, search and rescue or explosive-detection dogs. The process would take anywhere from a month to the better part of a year for the specialized dogs.
Within a month, Gerle underwent an intensive interview with program supervisor and founder Debi Stevens, and a panel of Department of Corrections (DOC) heads. A few hours afterward, he ran into Stevens on his way to the chow hall and stopped to thank her for the interview.
She replied with a curt, "Well, don't disappoint me."
The comment hung in the air for a moment, he says, before she cracked a thin smile and said, "That's my way of saying congratulations. You're accepted into the program."
Two days later, Gerle moved into his new living unit, and a week or so after that, a vanload of dogs appeared at the prison's gates. That was the day Gerle met Skye, a border collie with one dark brown eye and one bright blue eye.
Upon arrival, Gerle says Skye hopped down from Stevens' van, walked up to six anxious inmates and sniffed, turning up her nose at each. Upon reaching his feet, she sniffed, cocked her head to the side and plopped down. He'd been chosen.
"I was giddy," recalls Gerle, who'd grown up with pets and considered losing them one of the most traumatic aspects of prison. "I felt like it was the first day in school, first date, all that, combined into one."
It'd been eight years since he'd pet a dog. For some of the other trainers, it had been more than 20.
How it works
On a cold, early January morning, 36-year-old Marion Crawford and his dog for the month, Lucky, stand alongside his teammates and their dogs against the fence of a K-9 agility course outside his cellblock in Territorial Correctional Facility. Above the men, giant spools of barbed wire line a wall of rock quarried from the scarred mountainside behind the prison.
Before Crawford has a chance to show off Lucky's hula hoop-jumping skills impressive for a silky terrier Kenneth Cobbin leads his rust-colored Vizsla, named Copper, up and down a ramp, through some obstacles, across a balance beam and finally over a seesaw.
Though the dogs appear at play, their routines are really the culmination of weeks of obedience training. The dogs keep dually focused on the impediments before them and their trainer's commands. As they grow more skilled with each run through the course, the dogs build confidence. So do the men.
Across Cañon City at the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility, an average day of work on the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program is also underway. The program is similarly in action nearby at the Arrowhead Correctional Center. In Buena Vista, Trinidad, Fort Lyon, Sterling and the Denver Women's facility as in a privately run prison in Brush, the scene is roughly the same.
Because of its success in many arenas, Colorado Correctional Industries, a non-tax-supported division of the DOC, has essentially franchised its dog program. What began in October 2002 with five dogs and five handlers at the women's facility has grown into a program of 130 inmates spread across the nine minimum- and medium-security facilities.
"This program saves dogs' lives, and it changes inmates' lives," says Stevens. "It teaches them new life skills. Some people never even learned how to get up in the morning and go to work.
"One of the things that happens in prison is all an inmate can see is "me-me-me,' ... up there on that block [are] 14 men that have to learn to work together."
Today, the program also accepts "boarding-in" dogs from people who are tired of wrestling with behavioral issues. The money that the DOC charges those folks keeps the program afloat.
It's the companionship, and "somebody who loves you unconditionally," according to Crawford, that make the work worthwhile. And it's the simple occurrence that brings light to the otherwise staid environment. For many inmates, the best part of the day is what had been one of the worst wake-up call.
Crawford, his face lighting up in the retelling, says that each morning the dogs wake up just before the inmates and sit obediently in their kennels, awaiting the morning bell. As soon as it rings and the lights blink on, the dogs scamper wildly out of the kennels and jump into the inmates' beds to say good morning.
"It's lovely," says Crawford. "It happens every day."
After the ritual, the real work begins. The inherent irony in it: People who've been locked up because they seemingly didn't know how to behave properly in society are training dogs to do just that.
'It's a job'
Gerle quickly learned the program involves much more than just teaching the dogs to sit or roll over. Many dogs end up in the program because of serious behavior problems, and they require hours of repetition, reinforcement and trust-building to reshape their behavior.
Inmates are often up in the middle of the night, taking their dogs out or tending to them if they're sick. They contact Stevens if a problem seems serious, but themselves learn to administer heartworm preventatives and vaccinations, and closely monitor the dogs' behaviors for signs of need. They learn dog-speak, so to speak.
In the words of 49-year-old Cobbin, serving a life sentence for armed robbery: "It's not a pet. It's a job."
The specialized skill earns dog trainers $2 per day, along with incentive bonuses; the average offender makes only 60 cents a day. Aside from the canteen money, and something positive to do, the program yields inmates a master trainer's certificate and the option to earn an associate degree in canine behavior modification from the Colorado community-college system.
On a typical day, an inmate will train a dog with the whole class for a couple hours in the morning and then continue one-on-one training, sometimes using the agility course, for another hour in the afternoon. The dogs stay with their hosts 24 hours a day, getting constant behavioral reinforcement.
"We worked as a team not only to train, but to help each other keep from letting frustrations mount to the point that they were overwhelming to us," Gerle says. "We learned to keep our tempers in check and our mouths under control, which is not a common thing in prison."
If one trainer saw another becoming agitated, he'd offer to take the guy's dog for a few minutes so he could relax or blow off steam.
"We can critically analyze something, but a dog can't," Gerle says. "All they know is they failed and that you're not happy. You've gotta set them up to succeed."
If you ask Stevens, or just about anybody connected to the K-9 program, you'd hear that's what the DOC has in mind for the inmates, too.
Kennels and cells
Stevens, 55, has been training dogs since the age of 17. Outside her work in the prisons, she runs her own dog-training school. She visits shelters and personally selects the dogs that she thinks will have the best shots, in and after training.
If one dog lingers in one place too long, she'll transfer it inside her training network and step up her matchmaking efforts. Stevens will not dump dogs back on shelters or euthanize them. Every one gets a home eventually.
Last year, 293 rescue dogs came through the program, many having to be spayed or neutered, or needing medical treatment of some kind. The veterinary bills inspired Stevens to open the program for boarding-in dogs in addition to the rescue dogs, to bring more money flowing in from animals that didn't need medical care beyond training. Their income now accounts for 55 percent of the program's overall annual $400,000 budget.
She says the program's expansion barely covers materials, but it's "very close" to beginning to operate in the black. In 2007, she even got her first grant money: $3,000 from an animal assistance foundation.
Stevens says the program's expansion is ultimately based on market demand. But other factors, including space in holding kennels and availability of open trainers, also dictate its growth. When it expands, it's usually with the conversion of an entire living unit, meaning a handful of trainers are added at once. Currently, it is in nine of 22 state facilities, and Stevens says the 10th is not far from coming to fruition.
Though inspired in part by a search-and-rescue dog-training program at Burlington's Kit Carson Correctional Facility, the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program was not actually modeled after any predecessor. In fact, other correctional folks have joined a wait list for a K-9 behavioral modification textbook that CCI's print shop is wrapping up. CCI has even hosted international visitors from places like Russia and Japan who've come to study this and other programs inside Colorado's prison system.
When Lori McLuckie, 46, was first accepted into the K-9 program, she'd been in prison 14 years. It had been so long since she'd nurtured something that she was afraid she was going "to break" her dog.
Seated in the corner of a drab conference room, a Dachshund mix in her lap, McLuckie speaks softly and chooses her words deliberately.
"It opens you up," she says, "and you tend to close up in here. When you first come to the program ... you feel kinda raw for a while."
McLuckie, in for life on a murder charge, was one of the first five handlers to launch the dog program at the women's correctional facility. It didn't take long for her to grow into it.
Last spring, she was assigned a blind and deaf, mixed-breed dog named Gracie. On her own, the trainer ultimately devised a system based on a combination of scent and touch. She would stomp a foot next to Gracie so the dog could feel the brush of air and vibration on the floor to communicate the sit, stay or disciplinary commands and appeal to Gracie's nose all dogs' primary sensory unit with treats.
"[It was] the most awesome thing I've ever seen," says fellow inmate Bertha Martinez.
The best part of her work, McLuckie says, is the awareness that she's helping the dogs and people that receive them. By reshaping dogs' behaviors, she gives them a better chance of "fitting in" with a family so that they avoid ending up in a shelter again.
She, like all the inmates, needs to believe in second chances.
"I think everybody deserves that, even humans," says Cobbin. "[Giving the dogs a second chance is] like saving a life. I don't know how you can explain that feeling."
Like many other inmate-staffed CCI programs, the K-9 program owes a debt of gratitude to agribusiness head-turned-director Steve Smith. Though Stevens was the driving force behind the K-9 program and remains its face, Katherine Sanguinetti, DOC director of public relations, says Smith's "entrepreneurial genius" facilitated the program's start with a $5,000 allotment from CCI.
Smith is responsible for many activities underway in a 500-acre Cañon City prison compound: farming of hay, corn, orchards, vineyards, a greenhouse, trout and tilapia; wild horse and goat programs; a recycling effort; and the operation of the state's second-largest cow dairy.
Beyond necessities such as milk for the prisons, each program provides specialized training for inmates. When CCI turns a profit from its business, the surplus is invested back into the system, to buy land and materials.
Tangibly, the programs also provide inmates something constructive to do with their time. But in less quantifiable ways, many provide subtle therapies, getting the inmates in touch with nature, natural processes and the land. When a former city kid handles a dirty newborn goat, emotional, transcendent things can happen.
All of which is wonderful, but relevant to administrators only if the safety of every person and dog in the program can be assured. Convincing security managers to allow crates, leashes, training collars and other necessities all potential weapons in a tightly controlled environment took some patient back-and-forths.
"One slip in the early days, and we were gone," says Stevens.
But positive feedback came almost immediately. Prison staff from various areas reported that tensions system-wide went down as soon as the dogs arrived in each facility. According to Gerle, people who under any other circumstances would never speak to each other or even acknowledge each other's presence, including members of different gangs, would come up to each other and talk about the dogs.
"There's not very many [situations] in prison where you can look at the other person and just see a person," Stevens says. "The dogs open that door. They make you both people."
She adds that staff members who were initially against "rewarding inmates by giving them dogs" later came to her to talk about how surprised they were at certain inmates' improved behaviors and attitudes. Others have noted "pro-social stabilization" benefits that make the inmates easier to manage.
Nowadays, Sanguinetti says, DOC staffers who transfer from a prison with the K-9 program to one without often promote it and petition their superiors to bring it in.
To date, Stevens and Sanguinetti say no major problems have occurred inside the program.
"The inmates police it," says Sanguinetti. "They don't want one of their peers to blow it for all of them."
"Yeah," adds Stevens, "I wouldn't want to be the inmate who caused the dog program to be closed."
Breaking the cycle
Now 32, Robert Gerle is out on intensive supervision parole in metro Denver, having been released into a halfway house in November 2006 and paroled in April 2007. He wears a bracelet that monitors his movements, but he has earned limited freedoms such as a relaxed curfew and driving privileges to work, church and meetings with his parole officer.
Gerle stands out as a success for his thus-far successful transition back into society especially considering the state's recidivism rate is 49.8 percent, according to the DOC's latest three-year study.
Shortly after landing at the halfway house, Gerle scored a job as a pet training instructor at PetSmart, which he held until March 2007. Since then, he's worked as a client-service representative for a 24-hour emergency veterinary center. He says he was up-front about his background, and both businesses were willing to look past his rap sheet to his qualifications.
At the emergency facility, Gerle says he's able to do a little more basic veterinary care and triage than other staff members, due to his experience. In addition, he's the go-to-guy for "feisty" animals that come in, again noting skills and techniques he learned inside the K-9 program.
Gerle also does some private training; out of 40 or so folks he's worked with at least once, only one has expressed discomfort with his background.
He likes to believe that when the general public sees inmates working hard to save dogs that, in many cases, were steps away from euthanization that they are changing behavior patterns and creating good companions perhaps they'll say, "Maybe, maybe, they're not so bad. Maybe there's some redeeming qualities in some of these folks who happen to be locked up for making bad decisions."
That is how Martinez, 30 years old and in for up to 50 years on murder and robbery, hopes society will view her.
"You don't see what I'm here for," she says, "you see what I'm doing."
K-9 Companion program instructor Edward Shallufy says he's heard many inmates say they never cared for anyone or anything outside prison, but now they feel proud to take care of the dogs.
"It's really strange to see a 300-pound guy with muscles bigger than my neck get down on his knees with sweet talk and baby talk ... caring for [the dogs] when they're sick ..."
Gerle understands there will be plenty of skeptics. To them, he points out that most people 95 to 97 percent, according to Sanguinetti. will get out of prison someday.
"Do we want them to get out having this attitude that the entire world is against them, or out with some education and skills that will allow them to become the proverbial productive members of society?" he asks. "The dogs were, and continue to be, the single best ambassador between inmates and staff, and between inmates and the public, that we could possibly ask for.
"No matter how well I present myself, I don't have four legs and a tail."