Behind bars: Dogs bring joy

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Teaching with rewards: Glenn Pierce gives Lady a treat for good behavior as handler Jeanna Motler looks on. Pierce volunteers as a trainer, working with inmates like Motler at Albany County’s jail to make unwanted dogs adoptable.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Proud of her pup: Jeanna Motler, an inmate at the Albany County Correctional Facility, shows off Lady, the pit-bull mix she is caring for and training. When Lady came to the jail, she was timid and malnourished, Motler said, but now she is outgoing and well fed.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Learning to leave it: Travolta, a pit bull, is reflected in the shiny floor of a gym at the Albany County Correctional Facility as he looks closely at a treat offered by his handler. He is told not to eat it and, ultimately, after some frustrated barking, obeys.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“What bad day doesn’t get better when you pet a dog?” asked Chief Brian Mooney, right, who is patting Lady as Lady’s handler, Jeanna Motler, left, lifts up the dog’s back left paw to show Nancy Haynes, center, the animal welfare manager for the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, a problem with her footpad.

ALBANY COUNTY — Last Thursday morning was cold. Snow clung to the tall chain-link fence surrounding Albany County’s jail, and the curls of razor wire on top were frosted.

Two female inmates — jackets over their yellow jumpsuits — walked together around a path in a foot of snow in the exercise yard.

A guard sat inside, next to the open door, watching them.

“How are you?” asked Chief Brian Mooney as he walked briskly by on his way to the female tier.

“Cold,” the guard answered.

But it was warm in the dorm room where he was headed. Two women were still in their beds — narrow cots with gray metal frames. They had their dogs to keep them warm. Yes, dogs.

Both women eagerly got up to sit at a center table with benches to talk about their dogs. The dogs followed them.

Jeanna Motler, her long dark, curly hair gathered in a tousled topknot, held Lady in her lap. Lady is a brindle pit-bull mix.

“I’m an animal lover,” said Motler as she gave Lady a hug.

She has been caring for the dog as part of a program the jail runs with the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, sending hard-to-adopt dogs to the jail for inmates to train over a period of six weeks or so.

Motler has been at the jail for four months and said having a dog to care for helps pass the time. She’s in jail on three Class B felonies, she said, and is due back in court on March 16. “I’m in here for criminal —” she said, leaving the sentence unfinished.

Instead, she went on about caring for a dog, “It makes time go by a lot quicker.”

When Lady arrived at the jail more than a month ago, Motler said, “She was timid and malnourished. She would hide and was scared of males.”

Now, she is well fed and outgoing. She greets strangers with a wag of her tail and a lick of her tongue.

“Men, she loves them, especially Sergeant Chem,” said Motler. “He’s asked to adopt her.”

Mooney said the sergeant had already adopted dogs from the program and it was unlikely he’d take another one.

Since the program began, Mooney said, inmates have felt attached to the dogs they train. “The very first program,” he said, “we had a family adopt the dog so he could keep it.”

“You get attached,” said Motler, wrapping her arms around Lady. “We know they get good homes.”

Motler’s cellmate, another young woman, came to the jail in October and is in till Jan. 16, she said.

“I enjoy dogs,” she said, and she had them growing up. She grew up locally and did not want to be identified in the paper because part of her family does not know she is in jail.

She is training a white and tan pit bull named Travolta, after John, the actor. She demonstrated the hand commands used in training the dogs, raising her fist for “sit.” Then, she made her hand flat, palm down, fingers together and placing it parallel to the floor.

“That’s ‘down,’” she said.

The two dogs snuggle together on her bed as she and Motler talk about them.

“Everybody benefits”

A brief time and long corridor later, the two women appear with their dogs in a basketball gym with a shiny floor. Each is wearing a yellow jumpsuit with the letters “CCF INMATE” in black on the back. They wear orange shoes and carpenters’ aprons in which they keep treats to reward their dogs.

Their trainer is Glenn Pierce from PowerPuppy Dog Training. The first quote on his Facebook page is from the Dalai Lama: “Although violence and the use of force may appear powerful and decisive, their benefits are short-lived. Violence can never bring a lasting and long-term resolution to any problem, because it is unpredictable and for every problem it seems to solve, others are created. On the other hand, truth remains constant and will ultimately prevail.”

Pierce, who lived in Altamont until recently, said he was well known in the village as he regularly walked his dogs — a mastiff mix and a Lab-border collie mix — wearing a cowboy hat.

He’s been a dog trainer for eight years, which he describes as a second career after leaving a first in corporate America.

Giving lessons in the jail took some special preparation, Pierce said, “for security and safety.” Also, he said, “There’s a limited window to meet — once a week.” And, sometimes the participants leave in the middle of the program as their time is up or they’re transferred to another facility.

“We’ve gotten great participants, super involved and eager to learn,” Pierce said. “They care about the dogs.”

He went on, “It’s really great for the dogs. They get human companionship 24/7 instead of being in a 6-by-6 kennel at the shelter.”

The program is dubbed STAR, alluding to the sheriff’s badge, which stands for Steps Toward Adoption Readiness. It started a year ago in April, said Nancy Haynes, the animal welfare manager for the Mohawk Hudson shelter. She has worked at the humane society for more than eight years and comes to the jail every week for the training sessions.

She selects the dogs for the program. The shelter gets about 7,000 animals a year from across Albany and Rensselaer counties, said Haynes, with a lot coming from the cities of Albany and Troy. “It depends on who will do well together. They’re good cellmates, so to speak,” she said of the chosen dogs.

No people have been bitten at the jail, but two of the dogs once got in a fight, said Sheriff Craig Apple, and “the aggressive one” was sent back to the shelter.

Once the dogs complete the STAR program, they can be adopted out with paperwork that documents their training, said Haynes.

“Everybody benefits — the dogs, the inmates, it’s an extra outlet for the shelter,” said Haynes.

“My staff benefits,” added Mooney; having dogs in the jail relieves stress, he said.

In addition to the corrections officers, the medical staff also sees the dogs, dispensing any medicines they may need, he said.

“We take good care of our dogs,” said Gloria Cooper on the medical staff. “We love our doggies.”

Apple said that the assaults and the amount of contraband and weapons have “plummeted” since the program started.

Asked for numbers, he said, “I have no analysis to go over with you...This keeps minds stimulated, they do something productive. It keeps the recidivism rates lower.”

Apple said that the Capital District had had one of the highest rates of euthanizing dogs in the state and credited Brad Shear, the executive director of the humane society, with the idea for the jail program.

The areas of the jail with the dogs “seem much calmer,” said Mooney. Two are placed on the women’s tier and two on the male mental-health unit. “It’s very soothing for them,” Mooney said of the dogs.

Mooney also said that the program doesn’t cost the county anything. The humane society provides the food, and the training is done by a volunteer.

The inmate dog handlers are selected from among the nonviolent offenders, said Mooney, and they go through an interview process to be admitted to the program.

Calming the volatile

Travolta and Lady are typical of the dogs in the jail program, said Pierce. Haynes said 60 percent of the dogs at the shelter are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.

“A lot of pit bulls or pit-bull mixes are up for adoption,” Pierce said. “That stereotype,” he said of ferocious and aggressive pit bulls “is unfortunate. They’re not like that at all. It’s just like prejudice against people....A lot of irresponsible people get these dogs, thinking it will make them look tough....They are very social dogs.”

During the course of Thursday’s lesson, Pierce works intently with one handler-dog dyad, and then the other. His training system is based on rewards. He is at once strict and encouraging to both humans and canines.

When the dogs sit, by hand command, they are each given a treat, which the women dispense nimbly from their aprons.

“Remember to use hand signals,” says Pierce as the women get their dogs to lie down, then reward them with treats.

Pierce also insists on eye contact between handler and dog, but eschews using food placed to the forehead to achieve it.

Then the handlers try a harder task in which they place a treat in front of the dog but tell him not to eat it. Travolta, who is supposed to be lying still on the gym floor, edges his way toward the treat without standing up.

“Leave it,” he is told.

He barks at the treat, repeatedly, but leaves it, and earns his reward.

In one difficult exercise, the dog is supposed to sit, unleashed, while its handler circles about it. Lady sits still as a statue — only her eyes move to follow Motler — as Motler circles around and around her.

“Did you see Jeanna do the walk-around stay?” Pierce asks an onlooker with pride.

The women also practice walking their dogs on leashes, which must stay loose and not be pulled taut. “Talk to him,” Pierce urges Travolta’s handler. “It’s too tight; try again.”

At another point, he admonishes, “He was totally ignoring you and that’s really rude. Try again.”

He also advises, “Make it easy for him.... Set him up to succeed.”

“You can do it; it’s OK,” he encourages. And then, when the dog obeys, “Yes,” he tells Travolta’s handler. “Perfect.”

As Chief Brian Mooney walks through the long corridors of the jail, grated metal gates clank behind him and he greets the officers looking on from behind glass windows. Mooney has worked at the jail since 1996 and knows it well, pointing out the original 1931 structure, built as a federal penitentiary. “There’s a great camaraderie here,” he says.

But he also says that a jail can be “a very volatile and stressful” place. Then he asks, “What bad day doesn’t get better when you pet a dog?”

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