A Volunteer’s Viewpoint

[The following article was written by CHAMP volunteer Sheree Nielsen after a visit to the CHAMP prison training program in Vandalia, MO. Sheree also was our photographer for the day!]

I had the opportunity to visit the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostics and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri with Executive Director Janet Cole and Board President/Volunteer Nola Ewers from C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs.

After proceeding through the main building, we walked the path to Building 2 where the C.H.A.M.P. dogs were housed with the women offenders.

Before training started, Jennifer Raspberry, caseworker for the correctional center, gave a tour of the sleeping rooms. The rooms were pretty basic – beds with thin cots, lockers and a TV for each woman. In the center of the room against the wall sat two kennels. A large rug lay in front of that area. Training is a 24x7 job, and this particular woman offender was training both dogs.

Janet’s agenda would review training, as well as go over key points. The session typically would last late into the afternoon.

I took a seat around 10 a.m. in the large multipurpose room to observe and listen. Janet critiqued different tasks the women trainers had previously taught the dogs. These tasks would be essential when living with a disabled person. Each of the women had an opportunity to show Janet how their dog had improved.

In one exercise, the dog’s eyes followed a long stick with its eyes, touching the stick end. The trainer used a clicker to reinforce correct behavior. If the exercise was completed flawlessly, the dog received a reward in the form a treat, or words of praise.

I could sense the dogs’ affinity for the women, and vice versa. One of the offenders, Faith, was training two yellow Labradors. The dogs sat intently, watching her. When she moved, the dogs’ eyes followed her in admiration. Faith in turn, kept eye contact with the canines. I was completely mesmerized. Another woman trainer, Roxy, had the same connection with her two black Labradors.

The last exercise was role-playing. Half of the women acted as trainers while the others acted as dogs. I asked to participate in this exercise and take on the part of the dog. My trainer was a C.H.A.M.P. volunteer.

At the end of the exercise, Janet asked the ‘dogs’ what end result was intended by the trainer. Most of the ‘dogs’ answered, “Take their right hand and touch the table to the left of them.” Janet then queried me. I explained, “My trainer glanced to my left, which prompted me to move left. The confusion came when my trainer glanced to my right. I wasn’t sure what direction I needed to move.” Janet and the volunteer agreed they could understand my confusion.

What I learned from my visit –

1) There are no stupid or dumb dogs, just confused ones – usually by their owners.

2) Eye contact is key with the dogs.

3) Trainers need to calm their body language down, so the dogs can easily read them.

Once at home, I was eager to implement what I had learned from Janet and the women trainers with our dogs. Maggie, our 14 year old Chessie, seemed to respond to my eye contact better than before. Toning my voice down also helped. Our 17 year old husky mix, Sasha, is deaf, so I didn’t notice much of a change. I already have her attention; she is glued to my hip!

Janet is doing great things with the program. The dogs are happy, and the women are positive and making a difference for themselves and the community. It was a pleasure to meet them.

As far as I can tell it’s a win-win situation. At the end of the training, the dogs will be well-suited for their new master.

Happy to be a C.H.A.M.P. Volunteer
Sheree Nielsen