POLKTON — In a cool room inside the barbed-wire walls of Brown Creek Correctional Institution, 14 men have a chance to change the lives of canines while changing their own lives at the same time.
On a recent Friday, a crowd of roughly 40, which included prison staff, adopting families and members of the FurBabies organization, watched on as these incarcerated men showed off their training skills, watched another class of dogs graduate and helped these dogs find a home when they might not otherwise.
“They’re just people like you and me,” Don Auman, Rockingham resident and New Leash on Life coordinator for Brown Creek, said of the inmates.
With that in mind, it can be said that these men don’t necessarily have a home of their own anymore. Brown Creek may be their temporary roof and some inmates, in fact, may never leave this place, but most here hope to one day find a better life. The same can be said for the dogs.
Each dog has a primary and secondary trainer, and five dogs graduated on July 17 — Sissy, Bandit, Hope, Nala and Smokey.
Smokey, a 1-year-old chow and Lab mix, has a nickname of the “baby bear” and is the only dog that hadn’t been adopted yet, although Auman didn’t expect him to be on the market for more than a week. Smokey, however, does the most tricks.
He will play dead if you pretend to shoot him, and he can take the lid off of a water bottle. All the dogs are taught different tricks with sit, lay down, roll over and stop being the most prevalent.
“I taught him to speak, and now I can’t get him to shut up,” said Bryan King, Smokey’s primary trainer. “He would take things from people out of the yard. The family that takes him, he’ll be back in prison soon for stealing groceries. So I took a negative and turned it into a positive. Now he’ll carry your groceries.”
King helped Smokey show off his trick in front of the crowd by having him carry a bag of groceries across the room.
King also is not new to dogs, as he trained them a little bit on the outside, but since he’s been at Brown Creek, he’s learned much more.
“I’ve had dogs all my life,” he said. “I thought I knew how to train, but I learned all my training from these guys. I’ve learned a lot more techniques.”
King has been at the Polkton prison for 10 months and will soon be transferring in August to Gaston Correctional in Dallas. Luckily for King, the Gaston County prison also has a Leash on Life program. He’s been in the program since the first day he got here.
“It’s taught me more responsibility,” he went on to say. “These dogs are like kids. It made me a whole lot better person. If I don’t take care of them, nobody will. It’s a big responsibility, and it’s helped me make better choices in life.”
Much like children, it can be hard for the inmates to give their dogs up after spending so much time with them and creating a bond. King wasn’t ashamed to say he’s even cried over it.
“I hate to see them go, but I love to see them get a family and get a second chance at life just like I am,” he said.
King was also voted Most Valuable Trainer by his peers and with all the tricks Smokey can do, it’s not hard to see that they spend a lot of time together.
“It feels great,” he said about winning the award. “I’ve worked with him every day for eight weeks. We put them in their kennels at nine at night and at six in the morning they’re with us until nine again.”
The inmates that are released back into the world will do so as a professional dog trainer with a license, Auman said, calling the program “a positive outlook. It’s a chance for them to leave Brown Creek with not only a new job skill but also another chance to live a better life.
“A lot have been through vet tech training,” said professional dog trainer Maggie Blutreich, who works with inmates to make them better trainers for the dogs. “They get overweight dogs back to a normal weight and skinny dogs to a proper weight. And they groom them. They take excellent care of them.”
Although Smokey wasn’t adopted as of the graduation, the other four dogs were greeted after the ceremony by their new families. Jennifer Tamberella and her daughter Ashley were in attendance to adopt Hope, a 1½-year-old border collie and Lab mix.
“We’d been looking for a dog to adopt and to have one that’s already trained,” Jennifer Tamberella said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
The inmates do such a wonderful job of training and taking care of their dogs, it’s no wonder so many canines get adopted so quick. Gail Bunn, a volunteer with FurBabies, said the whole process is good for both the dogs and the inmates, and it’s a two-way street.
Said inmate and lead trainer Shane Hyde to the adopting families, “There wouldn’t be a reason for us to do this if y’all didn’t do what y’all do.”
Reach reporter Matt Harrelson at 910-817-2674 and follow him on Twitter @mattyharrelson.