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Offenders train stray dogs in northeast Minnesota prison program

Taz strolls contentedly around the Moose Lake Prison gym with his inmate trainer. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service1 / 4
Gracie is momentarily distracted from her training by the big camera pointed at her. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service2 / 4
An RR Proffessional Dog Training staff member works with inmate D. to teach Gracie better manners to help make her more adoptable. In the background, Taz, a Shepherd mix, waits for his inmate to release him from a down/stay position. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service3 / 4
A Moose Lake Prison inmate works with Taz. He holds a treat in his hand to help encourage the pup to follow directions. When the eight weeks of training are complete, Taz will go back to the shelter to be adopted out. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service4 / 4

MOOSE LAKE, Minn. — A tan bundle of energy bursts into the gym with tail wagging, bounding over and greeting everyone excitedly. Smokey ran from person to person looking for a good scratch.

Smokey is a medium-sized pit bull terrier mix about 1 year old. He lives with incarcerated men and three other stray dogs in the Minnesota Correctional Facility–Moose Lake.

The MCF has been involved in the Prison Dog Program since December 2017. Lt. Scott Cisar began organizing it after the original program with a shelter in the Twin Cities area ended when the contract expired.

When Cisar contacted Ram Reizel, owner and operator of RR Professional Dog Training, he agreed to help forge a new program with the prison.

Cisar said the program has helped 31 stray dogs find homes since it began. In fact, Cisar adopted a small hound dog mix named Patty.

“She’s fantastic,” Cisar said with a smile.

He said several of the roughly 375 employees have adopted dogs from either the current program or the prior one.

Animal Allies Humane Society or PJ’s Rescue in Duluth contact Reizel when they have stray dogs come into the shelter that may benefit from training in the program.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge the collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the agencies in the community that are focused on the same efforts,” Warden Nate Knutson said.

Reizel visits the dogs at the shelters to observe their behavior and temperament before accepting them into the eight-week program.

The prison takes four dogs at a time. They live in rooms with selected offenders. Two offenders share a room and work together to train the dog, and there are three alternate offenders who lend a hand if the others are too busy to work with the dogs.

“It’s a good team effort,” Cisar said.

“This is giving the dogs a second chance,” one offender said. “What we try to do is socialize it to be around people and teach it basic commands like sit, down, leave it. Just basically getting it socialized and ready for adoption. As far as us being an inmate, it’s no fun sitting in prison, it’s no fun for us being in this situation, so this helps us out also.”

He has trained five dogs through the programs over the past few years. He admitted he has always been a dog lover and has five dogs at home.

“I’ve seen guys that have been locked down 25-30 years and they walk up to a little puppy and they can be some of the hardest guys you’ll see,” the offender said. “Once they see the puppy, they turn into little children.”

Kim Forsythe, a trainer from RR Professional Dog Training, trains the men on how to work with the dogs once a week. She has been training dogs for 20 years and with RR for three years. She visits the correctional facility each Thursday and gives praise when she notices improvements in the dogs’ behavior or advice in problem areas.

“This is a rewarding program and I am proud to be a part of it,” Forsythe said. “Basically, what we do at RR is train dogs to become good family members and that’s what I do here.” She donates her time at the facility.

The inmates are responsible for the dogs’ care, including brushing, bathing, feeding, cutting toenails and even administering medications when needed. Taz, an Anatolian shepherd, has heartworm and needs heartworm medication daily.

“The transformation in the dogs is amazing, but it’s the transformation I can see in the inmates that really warms my heart,” Forsythe said. “You can see the confidence they’re building as they’re learning how to train the dogs, and it’s really rewarding. I train dogs all week long, but coming here every week is probably one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”

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