Rescue dogs wag a tail from jail while training for a new home

There are no doggy doors at Benner state prison .

That, to borrow from industry parlance, would hazard a bit of a security risk in a prison that has the capacity to house up to 1,900 male inmates.

There is however a fence — one heck of a fence — that wraps itself around the property and the enclosed grounds, which, practical purposes aside, could serve in a more abstract capacity as a mammoth and intimidating monument to concrete and barbed wire.

The odds of a dog like Cheerio successfully mounting an escape from this particular yard are slim. Nobody is going to accidentally leave the back door open or turn a distracted eye toward the health of the rose bushes.

Medium-security prisons are good like that.

There are tactics that Cheerio could try of course — digging a tunnel comes to mind — but a charm offensive seems a more likely alternative for a cute, little border/staffie mix.

She was clearly nervous — reporters have that effect on people — and the reality was that having never done hard time before, Cheerio was still getting used to the realities of the prison landscape.

A few of her predecessors had also struggled with the transition, a type of sensory overload: jangling keys, guards in uniforms, prisoners in uniforms.

Cheerio’s handler, Shane, understands. He’s been there — he is there — but one day, he very much hopes not to be.

The similarities between Cheerio and himself are easy enough to grasp. It’s the distinction between a prison inmate and a rescue dog that are important here.

“I made the choices to put myself here, but the dogs didn’t,” Shane said.

In August, SCI Benner will celebrate the second anniversary of the A Dog’s Tale from Jail program, an initiative that pairs rescue dogs with a team of inmate handlers that train the canine in hope of finding it a good home and a fresh start.

A Dog’s Tale from Jail takes its cue from similar programs that have been successfully cultivated in correctional facilities throughout the country.

At chateau Benner, there have been a total of 35 dogs that have mastered the mainstays of doggy etiquette — classics that never go out of style like “sit,” “stay” and “roll over” — before being adopted as the newest member of a local family.

That’s the mission statement and as benevolent as it may be, the fringe benefits have been equally satisfying.

Billie Rupert, a unit manager at SCI Benner, said that working with dogs can stir up emotions that people haven’t felt in a long time, something she has observed firsthand with her inmates.

“It’s funny, but some of the personalities have changed for the better because of the program,” Rupert said.

At any given time, there are five dogs residing within the walls of the prison, bunking in a cell with two inmate handlers who trade off the day-to-day responsibilities of canine care.

Program applicants are carefully screened, with previous offenses and daily availability weighing heavily in the balance.

The results aren’t always perfect — more of a chemistry experiment than an exact science.

Taking two people who are already sharing what is essentially the fun-sized equivalent of a studio apartment and tossing a furry third party into the mix is bound to stir up some emotions.

Rupert said that regardless of whatever bruised egos may ensue, all involved agree that the dog is what’s most important.

Travis, one of A Dog’s Tale from Jail’s more seasoned inmate handlers, admitted that being involved with the program has forced him to evolve his social skills.

“You have to work with people. You have to get along with people you don’t normally get along with,” Travis said.

He was sitting in a plain white room with the rest of the program’s handlers, watching as an excitable little dog named Bolt was put through his paces by a fellow inmate.

On command, Bolt executed a series of maneuvers — “play dead” and “roll over” were among the simpler ones — and was instantly rewarded with a small treat.

The technique that the inmates have been learning is all about positive reinforcement, and fortunately Bolt is eager to please.

“You could probably feed him cardboard and he would work for it,” Pam Graci, the trainer in charge, said.

Graci has donated her services to the program free of charge. She wants to see these dogs find good homes and if that means teaching them how to sit quietly for 45 minutes while their new family enjoys dinner, then that’s what it takes.

More often than not, the adoption is a happy ending to sad story. The dogs at Benner arrive there by way of Nittany Greyhound Rescue and another animal shelter located in New York.

Prison has become their second chance at something better. Roland, one of the other inmate handlers in the room, can relate.

“When you come to jail, you lose a lot. When you see these dogs, they kind of remind you of yourself,” Roland said.

He has been responsible for training a handful of the 35 dogs that have left Benner and knows the drill just about as well as anyone.

There are mechanical aspects to the process for sure, but Roland stressed the importance of developing a relationship built on trust between canine and trainer.

“Dogs offer so much more than we know, by their body language, by the expression on their face,” Roland said.

The inmates can bring their four-legged friends with them to locations throughout the prison, like the library or even to Bible study. Roland’s pastor fell in love with the visiting pooch and adopted it soon after.

It seems to be a common phenomenon among the staff of SCI Benner.

“You should see the officers’ faces when the guys bring the dogs in and don’t stop at the desk,” Rupert said.

Corrections Officer Marlon Wilson said that he makes a conscientious effort to help make the dogs feel more at home, speaking softly or holding his keys so that they don’t jingle.

They even keep a few treats at the desk so that they aren’t caught off guard when something four-legged and adorable comes their way.

Wilson believes that training the dogs not only keeps the inmates busy, but also helps them to feel more productive.

“You can see a lot of dogs come in here — they were abused — and you see these guys that show nothing but love to them,” Wilson said.

Out on the lawn, the small crowd of spectators has started to turn their attention elsewhere and Cheerio is taking full advantage. It’s just her and Shane now, and she likes it that way.

The dogs typically remain at the prison anywhere from six to eight weeks before finding a family. Shane knows that his time with Cheerio is limited and that she will leave this place long before he does — and that’s OK.

This has been a positive force in his life, something that he believes is laying the foundation for a second chance of his own somewhere down the line.

“I wish I could go home, so it’s good to see them get out of here,” Shane said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready