A Chance to Make a Difference…

A few weeks ago, one of our trainers sent me a review of an article that one of our inmate handlers wrote.  Bennett May has been an inmate handler in our program for four years and as this review shows, he has been changed by Pen Pals for the better and has worked hard to make sure all of the dogs in his care succeed.  Our handlers are trained in the beginning of their tenure, sure, but they also work to continue their education when it comes to dog behavior and training.   Mr. May wrote a review of an article he read and related it to his situation as a Pen Pals handler.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!

–Sarah Hornberger, Pen Pals Coordinator

An Overview and Personal Insight of the Article “Testing the Tests” by Jessica Hekman, DVM, MS

By Bennett May, Pen Pals Handler at Lunenburg Correctional Center


This article discusses how to discover a dog’s true behavior.  Most shelters have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment or any other environment.  A lot of pressure is placed on shelter staff to properly assess a dog before allowing it to be adopted, and sometimes due to being understaffed with limited time the dog may be labeled as aggressive because the dog may SEEM aggressive.  These dogs are in an extremely stressful environment for extended periods of time; as she states “this may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in.”

There is a downside to improperly misdiagnosing a dog’s overall state.  If deemed aggressive, this dog’s chance of being adopted decrease and the dog’s chance of being euthanized increase.   We can’t expect for shelters to always get it right.  Oftentimes these generous people who love dogs and volunteer their time don’t have the training to properly assess a dog, and not to mention not having the benefit of assessing a dog in a normal setting.

I’ve been involved in the prison’s Pen Pals program for four years now and I have observed [hundreds] of dogs for [thousands] of hours in hopes of finding a way to help them through their issues.  I’ve found just as people are all different, no dog is exactly like another, and what works for one doesn’t work for the other.  So many in the dog world suggest dogs don’t have feelings.  In my humble opinion they are wrong.

I’ve brought feral dogs in here who urinate and defecate on me because they were so scared.  They growled every time someone got close to them, and prison staff judged them saying “sometimes you’ve just got to let them go”.  Never did they take time to put themselves in a dog’s position.  How would you like to be dropped off in a foreign country unable to speak the language?  I knew that’s how one dog in particular, Izzy, felt because twenty years ago I was in her position when I started my prison term.

Just like Izzy, I was labeled and judged, but I was given compassion, love, structure and a chance to change myself for the better.  She had committed no crime and I was determined to give her a chance.  I spent [thousands] of training hours with Izzy and went at her pace.  Not once did she judge me; quite the opposite as she began to trust me and that led me to being able to help her.

After two and a half years, Izzy’s adopters sent an update. She loves dogs, people and they couldn’t be happier with her. Izzy probably wouldn’t remember me now, but I’ll never forget her. She gave me love, peace, compassion, understanding, patience, and a chance to make a difference.

This program is for the dogs, but we as handlers benefit and learn more from the dogs we train.  I’ve seen very few dogs returned after being adopted from this program.  We have time to assess a dog’s behavioral issues and begin to work on a plan to fix these problems.  We’re also afforded the opportunity to help potential adopters understand now to continue protocols set in place so the dog doesn’t resort to negative behaviors.

I’ve yet to see one offender who completed this program return to prison after being released.  Not to say that one day they won’t find themselves back in this situation, just as a dog may end up back here or in the shelter.

As crazy as it sounds, shelters are set up just like prison; noisy, unruly, and chaotic at times.  Just as the author stated “a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situations he or she is in.”  Could that not also be said about humans?

It’s easy to judge a dog or a human for the worst thing he/she has ever done.  It’s harder to get to know a person or dog and help them change.

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