OKLAHOMA CITY — Scruffy black rescue dog “Sarge” and the affectionate rescued Yorkie “Harley” charmed a packed theater this week at the premiere of the new documentary “The Dogs of Lexington,” which tells the compelling story of the Friends for Folks inmate dog training program at the Lexington Correctional Center in Lexington.
Sarge and Harley are two of the stars of the new 43-minute documentary about the rescued dogs paired with inmate trainers, with interviews with many other human volunteers involved in the program.
“When I saw the rough cut of this film, I cried 11 times,” said Louisa McCune-Elmore, executive director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation that provided a grant to make the documentary, which was privately screened Tuesday by the foundation at the Noble Theater of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. “Get the Kleenex ready because (Sarge is) a big star in this movie.”
Inmates at the Lexington Correctional Center are taught to train rescue dogs mostly from Norman’s Second Chance Animal Sanctuary, which are then placed with families, elderly, veterans or at facilities like the veterans center.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” said Dr. John Otto Jr., a Norman veterinarian who took over the veterinarian volunteer portion of the program in 1996 from veterinarian Dr. Grant Turnwald, who started it as the second prison dog program in the nation in 1990. “It’s a win for the dogs. It’s a win for the inmates. And it’s a win for those who adopt the dogs.”
Sarge became the newest canine addition to the Norman Veterans Center in October. He was trained specially to provide unconditional love to the veterans who live there.
The schnauzer/terrier mix was described as a hyper “licker and a nibbler” of people, a former growling terrier mix almost euthanized after being returned to shelters by two different families and rescued by Second Chance and being chosen for Friends for Folks. By the time he completed training by inmate Bill Miller, he was affectionate to everyone around him — and still a little bit ornery. It was the 18th dog trained by Miller and was his favorite.
“I’m just glad (Sarge is) going where he’s going,” Miller said in the film. “It’s been an honor. I’m a veteran myself. … I’m going to miss that dog — big time.”
“(Sarge) is a dog that’s going to have a wonderful life,” said Kay Stout, Second Chance executive director.
Harley was a Yorkshire terrier who had been a shelter dog that later escaped from her adopted family. By the time she returned, they had adopted another dog. But shelter personnel knew Fairchild and the Friends for Folks program and thought it might be able to turn the dog around.
The dog was trained and became a companion dog for Billie Spector, widow of Robert Spector, M.D., the victim of a small plane crash in 2005 at Max Westheimer Airport in Norman.
John Otto Jr. said in “The Dogs of Lexington,” he was initially skeptical about whether the program would work because he learned from his former longtime FBI agent father, John Otto Sr., that inmate rehabilitation rarely works.
There are many human and dog heroes in the film. Greg Mellott, director of the Oklahoma City Community College film and video program, edited the film with footage shot by six OCCC students. Mellott said he became interested because of the people involved in every aspect of the Friends for Folks program and the Kirkpatrick Foundation.
“These people, they walk the walk and talk the talk,” Mellott said, mentioning John Otto Jr., Stout and Lee Fairchild, Oklahoma Department of Corrections case manager, Friends for Folks program director, and volunteer trainer of dogs and inmate trainers.
John Otto Jr. said more than 1,000 Second Chance and shelter dogs have been saved through the program. Inmates train the dogs from one to four months before they go to a family as an adoptable dog.
“We can take a dog to (Friends for Folks for training) … then it becomes an adoptable dog. Everybody wins,” Stout said.
National award-winning disc-dog trainer Fairchild is also a case manager at Lexington. He volunteers his time to coach inmates on how to train the dogs.
“There’s not much love in a prison,” he said about what inmates get back from training the dogs.
The inmates say repeatedly through the film that although before their prison days they took from others, now they get a chance to give back to the community.
“(The dogs) are giving us purpose,” inmate Todd Saunders said. “This program is really about giving back. I know my family is proud of me for giving back.”
“It’s a two-way street here,” said John Otto Sr., who credits his son for coming up with a way to rehabilitate hardened criminals. “It will sometimes take the hardened heart and soften it.”
The program costs taxpayers about $1,500 a year in expenses. Other expenses of food, shots and other pharmaceuticals have often been donated. But its proponents said it would cost much more if the program went away in recidivism.
“(The inmates) develop a skill that can be marketable,” said Susan Savage, former Oklahoma secretary of state.
Marva Perry Griffin, daughter of former inmate and dog trainer Marvin Perry, said she watched the program change her dad and teach him patience. The documentary is dedicated to her father, who trained the Oklahoma “hero” search-and-rescue dog “Star.”
Star, a black Labrador, was credited for saving the life of an Alzheimer’s patient who was lost for nine hours. Star found the woman in 20 minutes — something helicopters, other search-and-rescue dogs and emergency personnel were unable to do.
Marvin Perry was paroled in 2008 after being recognized for the discipline, compassion and training skill that made Star a valued search-and-service dog. Star is older now and lives with one of the program’s original trainers.
“When (my dad) came out, he was a better person,” Griffin said. “The Dogs of Lexington” is dedicated to Marvin Perry, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in July.
“In order to train the pets, you have to be patient,” John Otto Jr. said, who called Star his shining star and Perry a friend. “The inmate has to be teachable, just like the pet.”
Dr. Otto said the next step is expansion of the program to the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center to train companion dogs specially for returning veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He has written a manual for establishing prison dog training programs, with other authors working on a children’s book about Perry and Star’s story and a book telling the stories of the dogs in the program.
A second private screening will be March 27, hosted by the Kirkpatrick Foundation as part of the foundation’s Safe and Humane efforts to make the state the safest and most humane place for pets by 2032.
“The Dogs of Lexington” has been entered in the deadCENTER Film Festival, and those who worked on it said there are hopes that with national distribution, it could help inspire and instruct programs in other correctional facilities.