By Gail Radtke
Changing your career in your 40s is nerve-wracking at the best of times but I was lucky enough to have a very special friend to inspire and guide me towards following my passion. That special someone was Lanie, a Shar-Pei-Chow-Malamute-shepherd-mix girl who completely changed my life.
Up until 2007 I had had a rewarding career at British Columbia Provincial Corrections in the Greater Vancouver area as a Correctional Supervisor and Instructor but then a car accident left me with injuries that would change my ability to carry out my duties. Following the accident, it would take a few years for me to re-educate myself, heal my body and, eventually, follow Lanie’s lead as she guided me into stepping out of my comfort zone.
My husband works at Fraser Valley Institution for Women (FVI) in Abbotsford, BC, which operates a full service Dog Boarding and Training Center run by Jayne Nelson of the Langley Animal Protection Society (LAPS). The program houses dogs who have been surrendered or rescued by LAPS and provides care, training, grooming and the rehabilitation of “special needs” dogs to help them find new homes, as well as being dedicated to improving the lives of stray and unwanted dogs. It also provides daycare and boarding for dogs belonging to members of the local community and staff members with proceeds going to the non-profit LAPS.
In March 2010 I received an email from my husband which included a photo of a mixed-breed pup. Her mother was apparently a rescue who had given birth at the LAPS facility and then been transferred to FVI with her three pups. My husband was keen to adopt her but I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience the puppy phase again, not to mention that we already had two older dogs at home. My husband, however, couldn’t stop talking about how smart she was, so I made arrangements to go into the prison to meet her. It was obvious she had been receiving the best of care and attention while in the K9 program at the prison. She was healthy, social and could already perform quite a few obedience commands and tricks at her young age. No doubt my husband knew that meeting Lanie in person would result in her coming home with us, which of course it did, when she was three months old.
As I continued on my road to recovery, I learned to allow Lanie to guide me into trying new things. So, when she was a year old, I applied to the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program in Maple Ridge, BC. This is a Canada-wide program that involves certified handlers and dogs volunteering their time to visit hospitals and senior care homes in their area. It also includes a children’s reading program which is assisted by a St. John Therapy Dog and another team of volunteers who are on call with Ridge Meadows Royal Canadian Mounted Police Victim Services.
The St. John Ambulance program requires dogs to undergo a behavioral assessment test which mimics real life situations they may encounter while volunteering at hospitals and senior care homes.
Lanie had been trained in obedience and tricks with the use of a clicker and positive reinforcement as soon as she came into LAPS’ care and this had continued at FVI. Alicia Santella, the K9 program training coordinator at FVI, had overseen Lanie’s training during her adoption process and it was Alicia’s influence that had ignited my passion for clicker training. Building on that foundation – and in preparation for Lanie’s St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog assessment and testing – we worked on novel stimulus exposure to wheelchairs, walkers and other items we felt we would come across in a nursing home.
The conditioning process in a graded-task approach was vital to having a dog who can work with noise, yelling or anything startling. We had to ensure that we worked below Lanie’s startle threshold and maintained a positive association with whatever we were exposing her to. Luckily, Lanie is highly food-driven and has a wonderful play drive, so reinforcement with toys was also utilized. As a nursing home environment can be unpredictable, habituating Lanie to sudden loud noises was important. Lanie had been brought into the institutional environment in the latter part of her primary socialization period at approximately eight weeks old, and this early exposure gave her a positive association with novel or unknown stimuli and unpredictable human behavior.
The St. John Ambulance temperament testing puts the dog through a series of stress-inducing scenarios to ensure she does not react in any aggressive manner to being startled. In our test we had to navigate through a group of people who were moving about, dropping objects and reaching for the dog. The dog is required to walk in a heel position while the group of volunteers try to entice her away. Another part of the testing involved the dog and handler being approached by a woman in a wheelchair who was attempting to feed the dog. Another part involved a man with a large cane running towards the dog. The dog’s response is not only assessed by how well the handler is able to keep their dog at a safe distance but also by the handler’s skills. Each assessment test is unique. They are never the same to make sure people understand how difficult it is to prepare for unknown situations while out in public or in the care homes.
Lanie passed her exam and we began to volunteer in the senior wing at Ridge Meadows Hospital. This was very meaningful to the FVI offenders because each of them had worked very hard to train Lanie and prepare her for her test. When she passed, her accomplishment was their accomplishment.
Meanwhile, Lanie would still go to work with my husband and we would daycare and board her at FVI when we went away. Around this time, another opportunity came up for me to involve her in another prison program, this time at Alouette Correctional Center for Women (ACCW) in Maple Ridge. ACCW offered doggy daycare for members of the correctional staff. This was not a formally structured program but it did allow the offenders to have daily interactions with the dogs. Some of the offenders who were accepted into the K9 daycare program had previous experience of handling dogs and even some minor work experience with them. What they all had in common was the desire to spend time with the dogs. Each offender would be assigned a dog to care for during the day and that would include walks, feeding and companionship.
When I would drop Lanie off for doggy daycare, I could see the joy on the face of the offender who was caring for her that day and I could see it in Lanie also. I knew what the dogs were able to give to these offenders and it was something that they were a lot less likely to receive from their human peers, namely unconditional love, affection and being void of judgement towards the mistakes and lifestyle choices people sometimes make.
The Assistant Deputy Warden at ACCW, Ann Barley, is an animal enthusiast and dog lover and has been the driving force behind moving the K9 program forward. As an interesting aside, Ann has a small hobby farm and has been known to bring a few of her goats in to the prison, which has a pasture-like fenced area. The offenders were thrilled to look after goats, just like they were with the dogs.
While my husband and I were working, Lanie was spending time in two prisons in the doggy daycare programs. I was touched when a couple of the offenders suggested I go on vacation so Lanie could stay overnight in the prison.
Because Lanie was so well-conditioned to the prison environment and the offenders knew her so well, she was approved to stay in their housing area overnight. Although I missed her terribly while traveling, I knew the companionship she was providing was so very special. Many of the female offenders at both prisons have children and I believe that having the companionship and the responsibility to care for a dog while they are in prison helps to fill a very empty spot.
In 2011, I applied to join an instructor program with Dogsafe® Canine First Aid and was accepted. Not only would I have to qualify as an instructor, but Lanie would have to train to become my demonstration dog. During our studies I would be learning canine first aid and how to administer emergency first aid.
Part one of the Dogsafe® program is an eight-hour course where I would be required to demonstrate procedures to the students with my demo dog. Lanie and I studied for close to a year for this. She would be muzzled, bandaged and have her vital signs taken to name just a few of the procedures she would have to endure, all while being relaxed and cooperative. This didn’t happen overnight! It would be a conditioning process with each individual item of first aid equipment required for the class. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one procedure where Lanie required a higher value of reinforcement during training was having her temperature taken. I brought out one her favorite treats, her beloved pieces of chopped sausage. Once I increased her rate of pay she increased her level of cooperation on that particular procedure.
Lanie is delightful and funny when we instruct. I have a routine where I give each student a treat to give Lanie and then I cue her to go meet everyone. She goes up to each student and greets them then waits for her paycheck. We work together as a team and make sure that both of us are enjoying what we do. We successfully completed the program as a team.
By this time Lanie had developed a very busy schedule: she had become a companion to the offenders in the K9 prison programs, she volunteered at the hospital and she was the other half of my team instructing Dogsafe® Canine First Aid. Even on Christmas Day she would get dressed in her Santa outfit and deliver Christmas dinner with me to the staff working at Fraser Regional Correctional Center. What I didn’t realize, however, was that my career path was about to change and Lanie and I were about to get a whole lot busier.
While working for the Corrections Branch after my accident I had started to conduct research into the benefits of dogs in prison and the programs available in the correctional system. Eventually I submitted a proposal for a K9 program at the prison where I worked. I had come across many studies that outlined a multitude of benefits of having dogs in prison with offenders.
Not only were there emotional therapeutic benefits for the offenders but also opportunities for training skills an offender might use when released. The benefits to the dogs were also many, from rescue and rehabilitation to the training of service assistance dogs. The studies and facts were there. Several prisons had successful programs in place and the FVI was one I hoped to model. But then my car accident resurfaced with some further medical complications and I found myself on a leave of absence undergoing further procedures.
I realized that I had to prepare myself for my worst case scenario, which was not being able to continue my career with the Corrections Branch. At this time Lanie and I were studying and training again and were attending school full-time so I could obtain my dog trainer’s certification. Synchronistic events were at work. Although my workplace did not adopt the K9 program proposal I had submitted, ACCW, where Lanie attended doggy daycare, did so in the spring of this year.
Today Lanie and I are back in prison working side by side. The K9 program at ACCW is in its infancy but we have been busy nonetheless. Currently we are a volunteer training team, instructing in canine handling skills, the basics of canine behavioral learning theory and Dogsafe® Canine First Aid to the offenders in the K9 program. Lanie’s outgoing personality engages everyone she meets. It was very touching when we finished our first Dogsafe® Canine First Aid class and each student requested to have a photo taken with their Dogsafe® Canine First Aid Certificate of Accomplishment and Lanie by their side.
This little prison puppy has touched the lives of so many people and changed my life completely. I am excited to see how the prison K9 program will develop with Lanie leading the way. Lanie reminds me to make a difference whenever and wherever you can with the people you cross paths with in life.
About the Author
Gail Radtke owns and operates Cedar Valley K9 in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, Canada. She is a certified fear free animal trainer and certified professional dog trainer and holds a diploma in canine behavior and science technology. She is also a DogSafe canine first aid authorized instructor, FitPAWS master trainer and certified canine fitness trainer.