- Grove City, Pennsylvania

May 29, 2007

Guide dog program offers inmates, dogs a second chance

By Carol Cole

NORMAN, Okla. — It was an icy day in late January, a Wednesday, when Janet Carpenter first met “Boots.”

Carpenter called it “love at first sight” for the slender black Labrador mix.

Boots had been selected for the Friends for Folks training program at the Lexington Correctional Center and the blind Norman woman had recently realized that her beloved fourth guide dog “Flute” would not be around much longer.

“Would you like to come and live at my house? We have toys and treats,” Carpenter, 54, asked Boots, who had lived at Second Chance Animal Sanctuary since she arrived with a litter of puppies about a year before.

The slightly skittish Boots squirmed that winter day and shyly took a treat from Carpenter.

“What a good girl. … You take it gently like Flute does. We’ll call you ‘Bootsie Wootsie.’ I love scratching doggies behind their ears. Anyway — you are going to get to sleep on the bed,” she said.

“That’s what we like to hear,” said Mary Katherine Long, executive director of Second Chance, who told Carpenter that she had “dog sense.”

Carpenter was finally united with Boots at the Friends for Folks graduation last week at Lexington Correction Center after the dog completed an intense 12-week training program.

Drs. Charles and Mary Carpenter, a retired University of Oklahoma professor and a medical researcher respectively, traveled to Lexington to see the graduation and their oldest daughter reunite with Boots. It was the first time either had been inside a prison.

“You have another dog to spoil,” said her dad, who seemed pleased they were there to witness the ceremony.

Carpenter lost her sight when she was 20 to complications from diabetes. She’s had a series of guide dogs — Vera, Quasar, Nanny and Flute. But dogs, especially large dogs, don’t live as long as people or even small dogs. And Carpenter’s mobility had lessened in recent years, making her less able to work a guide dog properly. What she wanted was a good companion dog, who might be able to learn to fetch things for her.

Enter Boots, with a slender face and white blaze on her chest and socks, who learned to sit, stay, lie down, heel and do a “hard return” in the Friends for Folks program.

“She’s extremely intelligent,” said Danny Goulsby, the inmate who trained Boots. “I had it the easiest.”

Boots was Goulsby’s first dog-training experience and it’s inspired him to want to learn more and perhaps become a professional dog trainer when he’s released in about three years.

“Once she bonds with (Carpenter) … she’ll act for the love,” he said, calling Boots a “laid-back dog, mellow.”

Goulsby said he was happy to get to meet the woman who will have Boots to love in the future.

“It’s good to see her because I know the dog is going to be all right,” he said, wistfully. “She’s going to get babied.”

When he began training Boots, the soft-spoken, 31-year-old Goulsby said, “we were both scared of the world.” Goulsby has been in prison for first-degree manslaughter since he was 17.

“Just to love (Boots) — it helped me,” he said. “My goal now is to learn the art of training the dogs.”

Boots was one of eight dogs in the recent Friends for Folks graduation. Four have been placed, with one expected to be placed in the next week or so.

The program was started in 1990, at first bringing in strays that were spayed or neutered, mostly from area animal shelters.

“It’s giving animals a second chance at a better life,” said Friends for Folks director Jack Cottrell, who has been training dogs for about 40 years. His experience includes training military, K-9, drug and rescue dogs. “The system that we have implemented — works.”

Cottrell selects the animals, which now mostly come from Second Chance Animal Sanctuary, and the handlers. It’s an honor to be an inmate selected for the program, which doesn’t allow violent offenders, sex offenders or those with “misconducts” within the last six months.

He justifiably takes pride in Friends for Folks, which has graduated about 450 companion, therapy and rescue dogs to date. Only two dogs have failed the program.

“When a dog leaves here, it’s my reputation that goes out the door with the dog,” Cottrell said.

The program has been featured on five national television programs and six national radio programs. It has been written about in Dog Fancy magazine and has been a catalyst for several programs in private prisons.

Cottrell’s handlers also take dogs who qualify to train on a high-intensity regimen for 30 days, in exchange for a monetary donation to the program. They have a three-month waiting list.

Boots traveled back to Norman with Mary Katherine Long, and Carpenter riding in the passenger seat.

“You guys are going to make it,” Long said, as she helped Carpenter and Boots get settled.

And the first evening Boots was content to lay at Carpenter’s feet, seeming to know that she was her new owner. The black dog had an eye on Carpenter and her human visitors, cocking her head and observing her surroundings including several cuckoo clocks with interest.

“You’re going to be a good TV-watching dog,” Carpenter said, fingering Boots’ soft, droopy ears. “You’re a good dog. … And I love you.”

Carol Cole writes for The Norman (Okla.) Transcript.