Spending time behind bars with a four-legged companion at his side since May taught Tyrik Fauntleroy some life lessons while he trained the rescued shelter animal to help someone else:
A disabled veteran.
Fauntleroy graduated Monday from a program at the Camden County Correctional Facility that gives inmates a chance to teach dogs basic commands. He has spent four months preparing Spence, a yellow Labrador retriever, for his new home with a veteran.
After a few final tests, Spence will be turned over to his new owner in a few weeks, said Camden County Corrections Officer Paulina Murphy, who oversees Friends 4 Vets and screens the inmates for the dog training program.
Fauntleroy, a father of three, expects to be home for Christmas after completing a sentence for a parole violation.
“I learned a lot from him,” Fauntleroy, 24, of Camden, said of Spence. “I learned how to be a better person.”
Spence and three other animals that trained to become service dogs were presented by their handlers, all inmates, on Monday, but only Fauntleroy and Earl Wiles earned certificates for completing 180 hours of canine training and handling instruction.
Wearing bright yellow jail uniforms, the handlers led the animals into a crowded room. A few dogs became agitated by the excitement and barked, but after their handlers stopped and lovingly patted them, they proceeded to their positions. Attendees were asked to wave their hands instead of clapping to avoid upsetting the dogs.
Susan Rohloff, 56, of Winslow, said she fell in love with Sassy, a mixed breed, who was rescued from flooding in Tennessee this year and kept at a Voorhees shelter until being picked for the program. For Rohloff, an Air Force veteran who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, the dog will be a life-changer and allow her to get out more to socialize.
“I’m so excited,” said Rohloff, who served for five years in the military. “It means that I don’t have to stay in my house.”
The animals' training was donated by Above and Beyond Dog Training so service dogs could be provided free to veterans who have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, Murphy said. Twelve dogs have been trained since the program began in spring 2017.
It is similar to a program by America’s VetDog, which matched former President George H.W. Bush with a yellow Labrador, Sully, in June. A photograph last week of Sully lying at the casket of the 41st president went viral.
The inmates in Camden say they feel the same loyalty from the animals they have trained. The dogs will undergo additional training and learn how to perform commands to assist their new owners, such as retrieving dropped items and opening doors.
About a dozen inmates are selected to handle four to five dogs at a time. Only those inmates with at least a 180-day sentence are eligible. They must be dog lovers and willing to learn patience and responsibility, Murphy said.
Fauntleroy said he believes he has been rehabilitated — just like Spence, a former street dog — and given the possibility of a second chance. The animals lived in a crated area in the same unit with the inmates, who were responsible for the dogs around the clock.
“I definitely learned my lesson,” Fauntleroy said.
Juno, a husky mix with piercing blue eyes and the program’s first canine graduate, returned Monday with his owner, Sonny Wimberly, 68, of Pennsauken. A disabled Army veteran, Wimberly said Juno provides emotional support, and fetches items such as his cell phone and prescription bottles and delivers them to his wheelchair.
“I call Juno a blessing. He wakes me up in the morning with a wet nose,” Wimberly said with a smile. “He gives me purpose. He’s a real joy."
It takes about three months to initially train the animals. They will become full service dogs after about a year of additional training. The county budgets about $25,000 for the program and pays a portion of Murphy’s salary, a spokesperson said.
Team Foster, a nonprofit started by Nick Liermann, a Philadelphia lawyer, to honor his college buddy Erick Foster, an Army captain killed in Iraq in 2007, will pay about $5,000 annually for additional training for each dog, as well as medical bills and supplies.
“We know that service dogs can help these men and women,” said Liermann.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
Although he is a dog lover, David S. Owens Jr., director of the county Department of Corrections, was skeptical about the program at first. He now calls it “a win for dogs, veterans, and inmates.”