Prisons are perceived as punishment, but a long-running program at the Lexington Assessment & Reception Center is more about realizing potential than exacting penalty.
The program, Friends for Folks, pairs shelter dogs with select inmates to produce well- trained and socialized pets for the public.
Started in 1989, it is the second longest running program of its kind in the United States and has been on the Animal Planet show “Cell Dogs.”
It is also the subject of a new documentary, “The Dogs of Lexington,” by the film and video program at Oklahoma City Community College.
The film, funded by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, premiered Tuesday. A second screening hosted by the foundation will be March 27.
Lee Fairchild, a case manager at LARC, also serves as Friends for Folks program director.
“This is one of a few programs in the Department of Corrections that casts a positive light on DOC,” he said.
Fairchild said a limited number of privately owned dogs receive training at Friends for Folks.
The majority, however, are society’s throwaways - shelter dogs pulled from Second Chance Animal Sanctuary in Norman or Dogs as Family in Edmond.
Ten inmates are in the program - Bill Gassaway, Wade Adams, Bill Miller, Daniel Dill, Todd Saunders, Michael Williams, James Millhollin, Kenneth Sewell, Raymond Lee and Brandon Owens.
Fairchild pairs each with a suitable dog, taking into account the dog’s issues and the trainer’s expertise.
Men and dogs are together 24/7, even sleeping in the trainers’ cells. It’s a bonding experience that benefits both.
Shelter dogs spend four months in the program; privately owned dogs 30 days.
Saunders has been in the program seven years and estimates he’s trained “well over 100” dogs.
His current charge is Sofie, a chocolate Labrador Retriever he received around four weeks ago.
“She came in knowing nothing but sit,” Saunders said.
While Sofie is easily the most gentle dog around people, Saunders is helping her get around an innate aggression to her own species.
“She’s really affectionate for a dog. It’s a nice change of pace,” Saunders said.
Although his family had dogs when Saunders was growing up, he never trained a dog until he was accepted into the program.
When he arrived at LARC, it didn’t take Saunders long to realize the inmates in the program “had a glow about them.”
“I applied and was blessed enough to get into the program right away,” he said.
Of all the dogs he’s trained, Saunders said his favorite was Stony, a white, deaf Boxer placed through the Tulsa Boxer Rescue Foundation.
Saunders said he liked the challenges Stony presented, like learning to communicate with the dog through hand signals.
“I just really grew to love him,” he said.
At the end of his training, Stony was returned to TBRF and was almost immediately adopted into a forever home.
Another memorable dog was one Saunders was able to train for an uncle who drove from North Carolina to get the Canaan Dog in the program.
That dog, Saunders said, was both people and dog aggressive and his uncle’s instructions were simple:
“Do what you can with her.”
Saunders first had to establish himself as alpha and then help the dog to know her own role in the human-canine pack.
“When she returned home, she was doing great,” he said.
Saunders said his success with training dogs even inspired a cousin to do his senior project on training therapy dogs.
Gassaway has been at LARC about 13 years and has been with Friends for Folks the entire time. He serves as kennel master and is the sole caretaker of the program’s mascot dog, a Standard Poodle named Duke.
Duke’s breeder, who raises show Poodles, donated him to the program 4-1/2 years ago.
“She wanted to do something nice,” Gassaway said.
Gassaway lost count long ago of the number of dogs he’s trained. Even so, he remembers the most difficult dog, a Greyhound, that was stubborn and dominant.
When that dog’s owners came to pick him up, it was obvious they were frightened of their pet until they saw for themselves the change in his behavior.
Seeing that reaction, Gassaway said, was “satisfying.”
“It’s a privilege to do this,” he continued. “These dogs will give you a good attitude.”
Millhollin was on the yard about 10 years before he came into the program. That was almost two years ago.
“It’s something to help my time ... and give back a little bit,” he said.
Millhollin’s current charge is a 10-month-old Pointer that arrived just five days earlier.
“She’s real sweet,” he said. “Handles so good and learns so fast. She’s real hyper - typical of bird dogs.”
The fact she is privately owned means Millhollin has more background on her and a better grasp of what her training needs are.
“She will be here 30 days,” he said.
In that time, she will learn basic obedience - heeling on lead, sit, stay, recall, down - and if time and training progression allow, perhaps some frisbee retrieving.
Shelter dogs are harder, he said, because their background is a mystery.
“You don’t know what’s been done to them,” he explained. “But once you break that shell ...”
Williams is working with Missy, a shelter dog from Second Chance.
“She’s a very sweet dog,” he said. “She loves to play and she loves to eat. She’s a real good dog. I’ve had her about two months and she’ll be here four to five months.”
Fairchild said 50 to 100 dogs a year have passed through Friends for Folks since the program’s inception.
He became the director in 2007 and said the average number of dogs has been 75 to 80 per year since then.
Fairchild, a dog trainer himself who has put numerous world titles on his own dogs in disc competition, was drawn to the program “just from being a dog lover.”
An Air Force retiree with more than 20 years in Security Forces, Fairchild began working at LARC as an officer.
He said inmates must meet strict criteria to be accepted into the program and to stay in it must remain misconduct free.
“They have to want to do it (train dogs) and be willing to work,” he said.
“We all enjoy the company of the dogs and the reward of dog training,” Saunders said
The first dog that you train and then have to give up after months of togetherness is the hardest, Saunders said.
But there is always another day, another dog.