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Inmates battle doubts and sweat out dog-training test

The series so far: The 12 inmates and their six rescue dogs living on Mod 3 have formed close bonds. The men are practicing job interviews, preparing for employment after prison. And most are working hard to ready their dogs for the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, which is fast approaching. Others are falling behind.

Ike greets Karen Bryant, warden of the alternative and special detention unit, as trainer Kenneth Rivera strokes his coat. The dog had just been bathed. (Ron Tarver/Staff)
Ike greets Karen Bryant, warden of the alternative and special detention unit, as trainer Kenneth Rivera strokes his coat. The dog had just been bathed. (Ron Tarver/Staff)Read more

The series so far: The 12 inmates and their six rescue dogs living on Mod 3 have formed close bonds. The men are practicing job interviews, preparing for employment after prison. And most are working hard to ready their dogs for the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, which is fast approaching. Others are falling behind.

Fourth of six parts.

Under a gray spongy sky on a Sunday afternoon, the hopeful came to the Philadelphia Pet Hotel and Villas, a boarding facility near the airport.

Adoption applications had been streaming in, and now it was meet-and-greet day for the dogs and their prospective owners. All were ushered into the huge exercise arena, carpeted with thick rubber mats and divided into sections by chest-high fences.

There was reason to believe that both the men and the dogs would enjoy brighter futures after graduation.

There also was reason to worry.

Three months of intensive training and love might not be enough to redirect the course of lives so damaged for so long.

In some ways, the odds for the dogs were better than for the men. After all, New Leash could guarantee that the dogs were headed to safe, loving homes.

Inside the arena, a young couple from the Art Museum area fell for Hershey on the spot. They watched, enthralled, as the gangly hound bounded around the pen.

"He's got your legs, Chris," the woman joked, and called to the dog, who raced toward them, nearly knocking them over.

An art student from Manayunk had asked his mother to take a look at Ike. He would later apply to adopt him, but Ike was destined for another family that seemed to offer a happier life.

Rolo, too, had attracted competing offers. A King of Prussia couple had first dibs on the beagle-ish puppy, so when a woman from Merion asked to see him, Waleed Yousef, the adoption coordinator, encouraged her to consider Peanut Chew instead.

The white pit bull, who had been locked in a basement for a year, showed little interest in the woman, though, and she left disappointed.

Mike's charm and status as the star student in prison did not generate interest in the setting of the pet hotel. Visitors briefly considered the tan pit bull with the golden eyes, then moved on to other dogs.

Well aware of the animus between Mike and Ike, the New Leash staff kept them separated.

At the end of the day, as they prepared to leave, Mike saw Peanut Chew playing with a ball.

Mike attacked.

By the time the dogs were separated, Peanut Chew's right front leg looked like a gnawed barbecue rib.

The pit bull tragedy

Joseph Davis reluctantly slipped a collar on Mike.

The gruff 40-year-old inmate had just been told he could not adopt the dog. Despite their close bond and the impressive job Davis had done training the feisty tan pit bull, it was New Leash's policy that inmates and their families are not eligible.

Now Mike was off to be evaluated as a service dog.

"Be a good boy," Davis said, before handing the leash to Yousef.

Mike was headed to Main Line Deputy Dog, a nonprofit that helps people train their own service animals. If selected, he and his owner would work with Mary Remer, a champion dog trainer.

On this day, Remer would test Mike to see whether he had the right temperament and physical ability. Throughout the 45-minute drive, Mike paced the backseat and strained to see over Yousef's shoulder. When they pulled into the parking lot of Remer's 51/2-acre compound in Malvern, the dog leaped from the car, yanking Yousef to the entrance.

They met with Mark Stieber, Deputy Dog's director, who said he might pair Mike with a woman suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

"He's going to have to learn to be perfectly well-behaved in public," Stieber said, laughing as Mike knocked over a pile of letters on the desk.

Psychiatric service dogs, he explained, learn to protect their owners and soothe their fears.

"C'mon, bud," Stieber said, taking Mike to meet Remer in the indoor training area, as vast and chilly as a hockey rink. A sharp, no-nonsense woman in her 50s, Remer, a granddaughter of the Main Line aristocrat Hope Montgomery Scott, moves and speaks with economic precision, projecting the family's well-bred iconoclasm and hardy confidence. She spent a minute, observing the dog.

"He's agile and inquisitive. Relaxed in his environment," Remer said, then called him. "Mike! Mike!"

He bulleted toward her and, on her command, instantly sat, wagging his tail so hard his shoulders shook.

Petting the furrowed plain between his ears, Remer said Mike is a prime example of the American pit bull tragedy.

"They are such compassionate, sensitive, extremely intuitive, smart dogs, and they have a sense of humor," she said. "They get maligned by society, who has exploited them for behaviors that they certainly, genetically, are able to offer."

Remer examined Mike's mouth and discovered a missing tooth. "It looks as if it was extracted, or something painful." She pressed his back, running her hands over his neck, ribs, belly, and paws.

Mike squirmed but did not resist.

"Down," she said, and Mike plunked to the ground, his back legs splayed froglike.

Hearing about the attack on Peanut Chew, Remer tossed a stuffed animal to Mike. He pounced, sank his teeth in and thrashed his head madly, flinging white clumps of stuffing into the air.

"Can you get him to drop it?"

"Leave it," Yousef said, offering a treat.

Mike let go.

"I find him to be perfectly appropriate," Remer said. "We put him through a lot today, but he showed no signs of aggression."

Mike's inability to share toys was not a problem.

His success, she said, would depend on his new owner. "He'll push the boundaries and if he ends up with a person who is weak or mild or unable to give clear instruction, he'll be right back to where he started."

Mike sat at Remer's feet, blinking his golden eyes.

"So is that a yes?" Yousef asked.

She nodded, "Yes."

On the car trip back, Mike collapsed in the backseat and slept until they pulled into the prison lot.

Inside Cell Block B, Davis was waiting. The guards pressed a button, the door slid open, he crouched down and Mike rushed into his arms.

Last stretch

The inmates had only two weeks left to get their dogs ready for the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test. The pressure was on. All the dogs in the previous four sessions had passed.

"How are you feeling about it?" Nicole LaRocco, the dog trainer, asked.

"Great!" said James Barkley, the jailhouse elder who had done little to train his dog, Ike.

Davis, however, was nervous. "I can't pull on the leash even one time?"

"You can stop and take a break," LaRocco said. "Who wants to go first?"

Davis had already put Mike in position.

Coaxing with air kisses, he led the dog flawlessly through the entire test.

"If he can do that on test day, it will be the nicest test we've had in the program," LaRocco said.

Davis thanked her and left to give Mike a bath.

On the way, they passed Shawn Paige, the young inmate who rarely smiled, and his dog, Peanut Chew.

After the fight with Mike, Peanut Chew needed 12 staples to close his wounds, which were still swollen and red. He sailed through the test anyway.

"That was really good!" LaRocco said, and for a moment, Paige's face bloomed. Then he looked down at his feet and mumbled, "Thank you."

"You just need to speak up more," LaRocco told him. "You're so quiet."

In the day room, the television, normally tuned to Jerry Springer, was showing police swarming an elementary school.

News was breaking about the slaughter in Newtown, Conn. The thick glass walls blocked the sound, so the New Leash inmates in the hall were unaware, until someone read the news crawl.

"Where is that?" a prisoner asked.

"Somewhere in Connecticut," came the answer. "Kids were shot."

A few inmates stayed to watch. But from inside Mod 3, the outside world - both mundane and tragic - was a muted, distant abstraction. The dog training continued.

It was Ike's turn to practice. Barkley tried to lead him through the exercises.

"C'mon. Right here, Ike," he said. Ike ignored him. "C'mon. Sit down right here."

"Maybe I burned him out," said Barkley's cellmate, Kenneth Rivera. Rivera, reserved and good-natured, had worked with the dog earlier that day.

"I don't think so," said LaRocco. She asked Rivera to take over. The dog did everything he asked.

"Very, very nice," she said.

Rivera allowed himself only a thimbleful of pride.

"I've been working with him," he said.

"Keep practicing," LaRocco said, then pulled Barkley aside.

At 54, one of the oldest in the group, he often acted the part of the wise elder. His fellow inmates saw through him, knew he was burying his insecurities under a whirlwind of bluster, and they teased him mercilessly.

"How much do you work with the dog?" she asked.

"Every morning."

"For real?"

"For real."

"Then why is he so stressed out with you? . . . I just don't see it. Not that I don't think he likes you. But he's not used to working with you. You need to not be all business with him."

He reached for the word like a buoy. "That's what I do! I am strictly business with him."

"It shows," she said. "I think you need to be positive. You need to talk with him."

"I do," Barkley insisted.

"I'm just telling you as I see it. There is some sort of disconnect between you and him." She watched him, gauging his reaction.

Nearby, Ike was sitting for Rivera, who rewarded him with a tug toy.

"You guys," she said, "have to find a balance with this dog."

Voluntary incarceration

Routine rolled through the prison like a tank, crushing and unrelenting.

A fluorescent dawn broke at the same hour every day. Doors opened. The men straightened their beds, took turns in the closetlike shower and lined up, waiting for the cart stacked high with plastic trays of industrial food. They walked through white halls and sat at white tables in white rooms, playing cards or chess or watching TV.

At 3 p.m., guards posted in the command room flashed the lights. The men responded, resigned and robotic, returning to their cells where they waited to be counted.

The inmates in New Leash were lucky. They attended classes and were allowed outside to walk their dogs, who offered companionship, demanded attention, and provided entertainment. Even so, monotony leached time.

In December, Elliott Glover's wife gave birth to their third child.

Glover, a former banker who had completed the previous New Leash session, had hoped to be home in October. The day his daughter was born, he called his wife's hospital room from the pay phone in Mod 3, apologizing that he was not there to help.

He promised that he would make it up to her. That he had broken the law for the last time. And that, soon, he would be coming home for good.

The judge, however, would not approve early parole. Glover seemed destined to serve out his full term and remain in prison through the summer of 2014. He would watch the other New Leash inmates pack up and leave.

Jamal Thompson would be the first to go.

"Dang! Dang!" Thompson cried, bending sideways with joy at the news that his papers had been signed. "It's definite? For real? For real?"

He was eligible for release Dec. 20, but asked to stay two weeks more to complete the New Leash program. He would get out Jan. 10, the day after graduation. Three days after his 22d birthday.

"I want to look at cars. Movement," he said. "There ain't no movement in here."

Like all the inmates, Thompson refused to talk about his past within earshot of others. No one trusted anyone, never knowing if something said would be seen as weakness or betrayal. It was impossible to gauge the truth of anything inmates said. They believed in the sanctity of secrets and lies.

"I've been in these type of places a long time," he said. "Coming up in the streets, it's a trust game."

Violence is the warp and weft of life in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up, he said. "We get so used to gunshots."

The precarious balance of respect and insult can tip at any time. Thompson lifted his shirt to show a jagged scar across his belly. "My own friend shot me."

His early offenses were almost comical. At 11, he stole a lawn mower because the engine sounded like a dirt bike. Compared with the chaos at home, juvenile detention was hardly punishment.

"I was a little fella," he said. "They loved me. They had a swimming pool. They gave us snacks."

Eventually, he finished high school and started at Northampton Community College, studying to be a social worker.

"I was never a big crime boy," he said. His record seems to support the claim - no charges for assault. Mostly burglary and small-time drug dealing.

"That's it. That's me. I don't want my family to be done with me before I'm 30. I'm just tired of being my own enemy. I never had a plan before. It's not fun no more. I know I'm not a bad guy. I'm more comfortable on the good side," he said.

"With the dogs, they were probably from a home where people didn't have time for them or have patience for them. Probably got fed up and sent them to the shelter not realizing what happens there."

Thompson was honored to be chosen for New Leash.

"They didn't have to accept me. The D.A. could have judged me by my past. Just like with Hershey. They could have said: 'Don't pick this dog. Kill this dog.' I want my dog to make it, just like I want to make it."

"I'm here to restore," Thompson said. "Give back the love to Hershey that he never had. He's a good boy. I understand. He likes me. I don't want to be around negativity. I want to enjoy life. He wants to lay on my bed and chill. You show him loyal, he show it back. I just wish he could talk."

Asked what the dog would say, Thompson grinned.

"He'd grind me up. He'd say: 'You need to get your act together. You act like you're dumb, but you're really smart.' "

The smile faded. "I'm gonna miss him."

Thompson would be going back to live with his mother and grandmother. He said his greatest fear was falling back in with old friends.

"All the years I've been around them, I found myself in predicaments. I wanted to get a name like everyone else. It will be hard, but I gotta do it.

"I can do it, though, right?" he said, with the hopeful anxiety of a child about to dive into deep water for the first time.

"You think I can do it?"

The 'Christmas Pit'

No gifts waited under the small Christmas tree in the hall of Mod 3, but for dinner the inmates were given real turkey and gravy. They had taken turns using the day-room pay phones to call their girlfriends and mothers.

At 10:30 p.m., they took the dogs into the yard.

Most were on leashes. But Gabriel Seda had been allowing Mike to run freely for the last few days.

"I was confident I had control," he said.

He didn't.

As soon as Seda let Mike through the door, the dog bolted for Ike and Rolo.

"I saw his face," said Rivera. "It was an aggressive face. I tried to maneuver Ike away and put my body between the two dogs, but Mike kept running around him. He got close enough for Ike to strike him behind the ear."

Although Mike could usually hold his own, he was no match for the 80-pound mastiff mix. Ike seized him by the neck, whipping him around like a stuffed animal.

The inmates had been taught to break up a fight by grabbing the dogs' hind legs and pinching their thighs hard. It didn't work.

From inside Block B, Davis heard inmates screaming and Mike crying in the yard.

"I ran out and slapped his nose and that was it," he said tersely.

"Mike didn't bite Ike," Seda insisted.

"Yes he did," Rivera countered. "He bit first."

Seda frowned. "No he didn't."

Their voices rose. Davis interrupted. "This is not necessary. They were rival enemies. They didn't like each other from the beginning."

Contrite, Seda said, "I was angry at myself."

"I was angry at the whole picture," said Davis. Immediately after the incident, he was livid with his cellmate but softened after Seda apologized. "It's not the first time it happened," Davis said. "They're both dominant dogs."

Ike emerged relatively unscathed, only a few claw marks cross-hatching his head. But Mike looked as if he had been wrestling with a mountain lion. The fur behind his ear was drenched with blood where Ike's teeth had punctured his neck. One of Mike's eyes had hemorrhaged, the iris ringed red.

Davis and Seda put iodine and peroxide on Mike's wounds and tried to comfort him through the night. The next morning, he was taken to the hospital.

Mike, admitted as "Christmas Pit" in the charts, needed six stitches and a drain in his neck. He spent the next three days in the hospital kennel, barking and crying.


New Leash's director

of operations, talks about the emotional separation process that the inmates go through when the dogs leave the program.