Young Dogs, New Tricks | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Young Dogs, New Tricks 

An innovative assistance-dog-training program and inmates at Cook County Boot Camp are getting along great. That doesn't mean the program has a future.

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Richard Navarro knows he's had a couple lucky breaks. Facing two to six years for possession of drugs and a concealed weapon, the 27-year-old Humboldt Park resident was offered an alternative. The judge gave him four months at Cook County Boot Camp, a detention center for nonviolent offenders at 2801 S. Rockwell. With a seven-month-old daughter at home, he was eager to take the shorter sentence.

Once inside, he was one of four inmates out of about 220 in the camp chosen for the most prized duty--dog detail, as it's known by inmates and drill sergeants. In civilian terms, Navarro was made a trainer in the Assistance Dogs for Freedom inmate dog-training program.

Started last October by dog trainers Julie Allen and JoAnne Steck, the program is one of the first in Illinois designed to train assistance dogs, which help their disabled owners by flipping light switches on and off, opening doors, picking up dropped items, even helping them get dressed. Allen and Steck's program primarily trains dogs to accompany people restricted to wheelchairs. Now the program may be canceled for lack of space.

Allen, who's been an assistance dog trainer for just two years, had been toying last summer with the idea of starting a training program at high schools when a friend told her she should approach the sheriff's department: a women's boot camp program had been canceled for lack of volunteers, and its building was sitting empty. The sheriff's department liked the idea, and so did Steck, to whom Allen had been introduced by another friend. After Steck completed her training at the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, California, the two teamed up to form the not-for-profit Assistance Dogs for Freedom, and last October the first four puppies were brought in.

While some agencies adopt potential service dogs from the pound, ADFF buys its dogs from a breeder. They're half golden retriever and half Labrador retriever, a mix known for its friendly, nonaggressive tendencies. Inmates are paired with dogs according to personality, just as the dogs will be paired by personality with the people who ultimately adopt them. Steck leads the inmate-dog pairs through the intensive training: daily drilling, coddling, bonding, and positive reinforcement. Once paired with a dog, the inmates are totally responsible for it, including feeding the animal and sleeping with it at night.

The training period is one year, though some of the trainers the dogs started out with have since been paroled. Navarro's dog, Chippewa, was originally trained by Noe Pedraza, 19, who was released in June. "You have to be really nice," says Pedraza. "You don't train by hitting or repeating, but you really--what's the word--synchronize with the dog. Chippewa is sensitive....Ms. Jo said that you have to leave the boot camp at the door, because if you're stressed the dog will sense it."

Steck and Allen run their program in accordance with standards set by Assistance Dogs International, which requires that all dogs it certifies be trained no less than 120 hours over no less than six months, with at least 30 hours of training done in public. The latter requirement was the hardest for Allen and Steck to meet, since until last month it was prohibited in Illinois. A blind or handicapped person can bring a guide dog or service dog onto public buses and trains and into public buildings such as restaurants and grocery stores, but a trainer could not train dogs in such places, according to state statute. Then this spring, legislation sponsored by state representative Sara Feigenholtz was passed to allow such training. It was signed into law in August. "The dogs now can all go on escalators," says Allen triumphantly. "That's a big deal. Escalators really freak dogs out."

Aside from one drill sergeant who "smoked" a trainer one afternoon, making him do push-ups and sit-ups to exhaustion after his puppy did his business on the marching range, ADFF has been well received by boot camp staff. "Both sides have benefited from this program," says camp director Pat Durkin. "It's a win-win situation."

Currently the former women's barracks house training facilities, kennels where the dogs stay during the day when they're not training, and an office for Steck. But recently there's been talk that the building may be taken over by a new women's program. "I'm not against the dog program by any means," Durkin says, but the sheriff's department isn't revealing any information about the new program or when it might start, or whether the dog program will be able to continue. "It's a pending matter," Durkin says. "That's all I really know."

Steck hopes there might be a way to integrate ADFF into the new women's program. Or the dogs could be trained in smaller spaces at the camp, perhaps partly outside, or boarded elsewhere and bused in daily. Allen says they've also started looking toward moving or expanding the program into a few alternative high schools: "We have found some other institutions that are very interested in partnering with this program."

Money is a consideration. The estimated cost of training each dog is $10,000, and that will go up if the dogs have to be brought in from another location. A $3,000-per-dog adoption fee offsets some of that cost, and the rest comes from donations and grants. So far ADFF has received only a few donations, enough to get off the ground. The donation of space by the sheriff's department has been crucial. If that space is pulled, Allen says, the future of ADFF is questionable.

The first four dogs won't graduate until November, but the program has already had some positive effects on inmates. "I feel privileged to work with these dogs," Navarro says. "It teaches you to be a better parent. I'm much more patient. [Learning how to work with dogs is] teaching me how to treat people."

Steck has collected a file of letters thanking her for starting the program. One former inmate wrote, "I really miss my dog, and I miss you." Another wrote to tell her that his participation changed his life. "You could have gave up on me and let me quit, but you didn't," he wrote. "You could have not cared about my problems, but you did. You helped where boot camp couldn't."

After release, inmates on probation are allowed to come and take the dogs out for day trips, which often means they go home to meet the family. "I want to take Chippewa home," says Navarro. "I want to show my mom what I've been doing." These home visits help train the dogs as well, says Steck, by exposing them to diverse environments and teaching them to perform no matter where they're taken or who is around.

Chippewa's old trainer Noe Pedraza is angered by the fact that the dog program might be moved out. "It's the best part of the boot camp. They were very supportive, especially Ms. Jo. She was more than a trainer, she was my friend. This was important, because in the boot camp you're just a number." If he can get hours off from his job at Jiffy Lube, Pedraza says he would like to take part in the training camp for the people who will adopt the dogs in November.

The success of the program in rehabilitating the trainers has yet to be determined; like the boot camp itself, the ADFF has had failures. One trainer Steck was hoping would return in November--an inmate she and Allen were hoping to hire if the program expanded--was recently arrested for violating parole. "It's very sad," Steck says. "I'm crushed."

Durkin says he's noticed the impact the program has on the inmates involved in it. But the decision of whether or not the program will survive is out of his hands. "Nobody wants to say anything," Steck says. "That's what really frustrates me the most. You can't get an answer from anybody."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/M.C. Thomas.

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