For: The Oldham Era
Published: April 30, 2015
By RAE HODGE
Kenny Burton has been training dogs from within the confines of a jail cell for 11 years now.
A chunk of that time has been spent training them at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. Behind the coils of constantine wire and the maze of clanging iron bars, Burton is joined by 17 other inmates-turned-handlers who are each serving their time with a single canine companion in an effort to make adoptable pets out of Oldham County Humane Society’s latest stray recruits. Each handler is responsible for the training and care of his dog around-the-clock.
By the time the dogs—mostly former shelter rescues who’ve seen darker days—pass the strict behavioral tests of a trained professional, they’re well-adjusted and family friendly.
“We can relate to that transition that they’re going through, being in a kennel, so to speak,” he says. “And that’s similar to the scenario we’re going through, although of our own doing.”
Burton is tall, his composure is calm, and his manners are impeccable. He says “Ma’am” in soft, even tones, folding his hands behind his back and leaning his head down politely when listening. Around him a unit of inmates quietly chat, their dogs resting noiselessly at their feet.
Burton tells me that he’s personally trained at least 53 dogs since he started at Green River Correctional Complex in 2004, but he’s seen over a thousand during his tenure in Kentucky’s correctional system. He’s also spent time at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, which he says had over 500.
Burton was in Danville’s Northpoint Training Center—which had 22 dogs and 44 dog trainers at one time—training dogs when the infamous 2009 riot erupted and five of the facility’s buildings were set ablaze.
“We had five dogs that made in through the riot in 2009,” he says, adding that the facility housed nearly 100 dogs during the riot, the rest not surviving.
“There are thousands of dogs that just go through Kentucky alone, not just in the United States.”
His experience comes in handy. He puts it to use as someone who answers questions when the pros aren’t around. But despite being familiar with goodbyes to the dogs, he’s still not quite used to it.
“When they leave we learn to deal with the separation of having a dog for a while and then losing it but we realize quickly that it’s for the dogs’ betterment to find it a final home,” says Burton. “You get 40 or 50 of them under your belt and… well, you know, it still doesn’t make it any easier. I still tear up from time to time.”
Burton says that the dogs aren’t just serving to elevate the spirits of those KSR inmates handling them.
“It’s not just these guys who it brings hope to. It brings something to the guys on the yard when they see them out there and they say, ‘Wow. I haven’t seen a dog in 10, 15 years.’ They get to pet the dog, and it’s like anything that’s going on at the time, things just stop because of that,” he says.
“It changes morale for people who are not even in the program. They say, ‘Where’s my dog at today?’ or they have a treat for them, so they consider them their dog also.”
The impact of the animals’ presence on the KSR grounds isn’t lost on Burton, nor the impact of handing over a well-behaved rescue dog to a community.
“It helps re-humanize us, or fell whole again to allow us to be a part of and do something good for society instead of being the menace to society that we have been. It allows us to do something positive. Every change starts with small steps. And it changes us.”
Burton continues, “Watching other guys and the changes that come about because of the responsibility that they have. Everybody is not cut out for it but there’s a lot of guys here right now that it takes on a whole new meaning to have that level of responsibility to see something else they’re responsible for, to change themselves, to help them find new life and a new home, it’s really a blessing.”
Burton talks about the changes these responsibilities have made in his own life.
“I used to run around and lift weights and shoot basketball. Never had any responsibility. Never had any in my whole life, which is part of the reason we’re in here. When I took on that responsibility and I started living with it, it really started changing me as a person. You go to classes, we learn grooming, we learn things. You strive to be a better person. We don’t want to lose this. It’s a privilege.”
“I was privileged to be a part of this …I’ve been at four or five training facilities. By far the methods that I’ve been a part of have been in this facility’s training program.”
He says it comes down to a few core training practices.
“Manners. Without manners you have no control over the dog. The first they work on is called composure. We don’t go through anything else until we get that. It teaches you to be in charge of their energy and drive restraint. They learn to work through that energy. The dog learns to defer to you. They don’t cross door thresholds even when you walk away.”
True to form, several different breeds lie at ease just inside the doorways of their shared cells, patiently watching the on-goings of the unit hall.
“You can teach any dog to sit down, but can you teach the dog to control itself? They’re quick learners and they’re good teachers. They’ve taught us a lot.”
Burton grows hesitant during the interview. He stops to make a point.
“It’s not about me, or any of us. It’s all about the dogs. It’s not about accolades for us guys. It’s all about the animals. That’s the reward, finding them a home. And hopefully, it’s their forever home.”
At each doorway, another hopeful hound waits to greet the visitors, another smiling inmate eager to share not their own story, but that of their companion.
Lenn Speight and Louie the Beagle recently started the program on the same day. Speight’s been here 20 months.
“Ninety percent of it is timing. Applying a correction as soon as they get the thought in their head. Learning to read your dog and their behavior, knowing your dog and knowing when he’s about to engage in a behavior that’s not appropriate, so they regain their focus on you,” he says.
When asked about what draws him to this program, he boils it down.
“As incarcerated citizens, we’re very limited in how we can contribute to the community so this gives us an excellent way to give back. It gives us a sense of purpose so instead of idly passing time away it’s a positive experience for the handler. We give the community a dog that’s very well-trained. We give the dog a better opportunity to be adopted and it gives us a sense of purpose and something we can use in the community and behind bars.”
Speight says Louie is exemplary of the change that can occur in the program.
“I’m so proud of how much he’s kept his composure so far. He’s one of the friendliest dogs and he’s gone 180 degrees.”
Harlan, the 5-year-old Walker Coonhound sits at the heels of Edward Whitaker. Harlan’s enormous eyes duck behind Whitaker’s legs. Harlan’s new here, and still shy, reliant on the new trust with his trainer after spending time in an Owen County shelter.
But Whitaker has trained nearly 30 dogs—plenty of hounds among them–over the last five years, and seems confident in Harlan, a breed he favors.
“They win your heart,” he says of the hounds, the end of the word stretching on as only a Clay County accent can make it. “They put a smile on your face to find them a good, loving home.”
Richard Callison has been behind bars for 22 years, mostly passing time in maintenance. These days he’s working with one of the smartest breeds in the canine world, a mix between a border collie and a husky that goes by the name of Rita.
“Some times you’ve been here so long you kind of lose track of what’s going on in the real world and the dogs bring something you can be responsible for. If something goes wrong, or the dog feels bad, you get up and you figure out what’s happening,” he tells me.
Roz is eight months old, and the tiny terrier mix stays very close to her handler, Timothy Martin. Martin, a towering figure, crouches down to be close to her.
“She’s a rat terrier with a Jack Russell,” he says after Roz’ wiry coat and small frame catch my eye.
“We’re teaching each other here,” says Martin. Roz is his first dog, and so far they’ve focused on grooming. After only a week, she isn’t shying from a brush.
“Like riding a bike, she keeps getting better and better at it,” he says.
Devon Benderman is perched coolly with his back against the wall just outside of his cell. A big-eyed Pit Bull pup lies at his feet with a smile almost as big as his handler’s.
“Sammy loves the ladies,” he says. “He draws so much attention, and he’s such a good dog.”
After a month of training, Sammy greets new visitors only after a polite invitation.
“You’ve got to have patience first. Don’t get frustrated. They’re lovable dogs,” advises Benderman, who grew up around the breed.
Sammy, who gazes up adoringly at the guests from Benderman’s feet, is an athlete’s dog.
A perfect match for an active owner, he gets a solid six hours of exercise and play every day before stretching out on the floor for a belly rub.
“He’s just very lovable and affectionate.”
Teresa Turner is a Classification Treatment Officer at KSR and oversees the entire Camp K-9 program.
“It’s important for the Humane Society to bring pits in,” she says, “Because the OCHS won’t adopt out pits unless you’re a single person or a family with no kids. So it’s an important opportunity to bring them in and get them great, new families.”
Turner tells me that among the many breeds brought into the reformatory, some of the most easily-trained are Pit Bulls.
Turner also says that Camp K-9 doesn’t require much from the KSR in the way of financial support. Nearly all of the dogs’ necessities are paid for b y OCHS and the occasional extra need is paid for b y staff and visitors who pay for pictures w2ith the pups.
Jason Lloyd is working with Bree, a strikingly beautiful Canaan mix whose face looks like a serene blend between a Shiba Inu and a fox. She is poised when she meets me, unshaken by a new face. Her eyes are wide, dark pools that do not flinch or shy when I meet them. She holds her head high, maintains a near-royal composure.
You’d never be able to tell she spent a year in a shelter. “When she first got here she got loose in the yard and everyone was chasing her, and I just laid down,” he says. That’s when Bree came to him. Skittish at first, Bree learned to trust Lloyd and now plays with other dogs amicably, looking to him for cues, sitting at ease.
“Bow,” Lloyd says gently. Bree takes a graceful dip at my feet before offering a cordial paw-shake.
“These dogs,” he says. “They’re ready to be whatever you need.”