The top dogs

Sunday was a big day for the leader dog training program at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

The program celebrated its 200th puppy to come in for training since it began in 2010, it received a national award that earned it a place in a documentary and it sent eight of its puppies on for further training in Michigan.

The puppy training program pairs one FDCF inmate with a puppy to care for every day. The inmates teach their puppies 19 commands such as sit, stay and down, preparing them for leader dog training in Rochester, Mich.

The third annual puppy day was held Sunday to show off what the dogs had learned.

One of the newest puppies was a black Lab named Walt, named after the long-time Messenger Editor Walt Stevens.

Stevens was editor and, later, editor emeritus of The Messenger for more than 50 years. He died in July.

Stevens was a member of the Lions Club for about 73 years, said Jess Lewis, of the Fort Dodge Noon Lions, and a member of the Fort Dodge club for around 50 years

“Around April we decided to sponsor another puppy. Walt was No. 4 for our club,” Lewis said. “We were hoping to take him up to Friendship Haven (to see Stevens), but little Walt arrived the day that Walt Stevens was buried.”

Little Walt’s handler, Allen Huenefeld, said the puppy is only 2 1/2 months old and has been with him a little over a month.

“They come here knowing very little of anything, so I taught him to sit, and to stay and to heel,” said Huenefeld. “I’m trying to teach him how to not chew on anything.”

Huenefeld has raised four dogs now, and has one working in Columbia right now.

“That’s the hardest thing we have to do, is take them out and load them into the van to send them to Michigan,” he said. “It’s a long walk back with the leash with no dog on it. They become a big part of our life for one year, and then they move on.

“But I know there’s a guy walking around Columbia because of something that I did. It’s fantastic.”

During the program, the inmates paraded their dogs around for the audience, and demonstrated how they could stay by walking around and over the waiting dogs.

Balloons, pinatas and globes adorned the gym, and participants wore straw hats in keeping with their theme, “Leaders of the World.”

The puppy program is also a chance to thank the sponsors, and let them meet their dogs.

“Your donations make it possible,” Warden Jim McKinney told the gathered sponsors, “because not one city dollar goes to any of this. Everything that we do is by sponsorship.”

He thanked the donors for making such a helpful program possible. The prison has changed, he said, since 10 years ago when a TV crew visited the facility to film a “gladiator camp.”

“What’s really neat is the culture of the facility has changed because of those four-legged creatures, and now I’m proud to say we run a puppy camp,” McKinney said.

Later in the program the audience said good-bye together to the eight dogs graduating to the Michigan center. They will be trained by this program’s parent organization, Leader Dogs for the Blind.

The success rates for dogs raised in prisons is higher than for those raised outside, said Deb Donnelly, puppy development coordinator for LDB.

“Some of the dogs are sent here because they need puppy boot camp, or they’ve had a bad start,” she said. “It’s always gratifying to see a change in these dogs, because they’ve been put in a place where someone has the time, and understands what Leader Dog needs from these dogs.

“The bar has been raised for those of us puppy raisers who are not inmates, because the dogs from these programs are very, very good.”

The 200th puppy, a yellow Lab named Dodger, was also revealed during the program.

Documentary crews filmed the whole event, since LDB’s prison puppy raiser program has won a national award.

Mutual of America gives out a Community Partnership award every year, said LDB Board Chairman Harold Gardner. The award is for a nonprofit that shows leadership by working together with public or private sector leaders for the greater good. As the winners of the award, LDB’s prison puppy program will receive recognition at an annual event in New York City and a $25,000 grant.