CRAWFORDVILLE — At Wakulla Correctional Institute in North Florida, inmates carry dog biscuits. Convicted robber Kevin A. McMullan, inmate No. 962556, reaches into his pocket and finds a treat for Pooh. A husky Labrador retriever-chow mix, Pooh gobbles the offering a little too enthusiastically. McMullan presses him firmly to the floor to calm him. Settling, Pooh licks McMullan on the hand. A couple of months ago, things looked bleak for Pooh. At the animal shelter in town, he was a candidate for euthanasia. He was big and undisciplined and nobody wanted to adopt him. Then Pooh became part of a new program at the prison and got another chance. McMullan got one, too. They both owe second chances to a man named Jay King.
King, 63, is one of those dog whisperers you hear about. During a training session, he is likely to lie on the floor so he can get a dog's-eye view of the world. He prides himself on understanding how a dog thinks. He rewards and never punishes.
Years ago, when he was a mail carrier in Tallahassee, he seldom met a dog he couldn't befriend. Even a ferocious dog that charged out of a yard, popping its jaws and snarling, was open to his charms. He'd kneel and hold his hands out for a careful sniff. "Hey, big boy! How are you? You protecting your territory? What a good boy!'' Then he'd reach into his pocket for a treat.
"I believe in Milk Bones,'' he says. "I never needed pepper spray.''
A while back, two women from the Citizens for Humane Animal Treatment in Crawfordville heard about a program in Texas called Paws in Prison.
They wondered if it might be worth trying in Northwest Florida. The women, Susan Yelton and Cathy Sherman, drove to Wakulla Correctional Institute near Tallahassee to chat with the warden.
"We'd like to bring some undisciplined dogs into your prison and get someone to teach the inmates how to train those dogs,'' Yelton remembers saying. "After the inmates train the dogs, we'll be able to find the dogs good homes on the outside. It's good for the dogs, and the inmates will learn a new skill.''
"You have to be kidding me,'' Russell Hosford answered. "Do you mean dogs will be living in the prison barracks with the inmates?''
"For how long?''
"Only two months! But of course we'll want to make it a regular program.''
Soon after, they hired their dog whisperer. They told him he'd have to be a prison inmate whisperer too.
Jay King, born in New York, speaks with a rich Bronx accent when he's relaxed. When speaking formally to, say, a prison warden, the accent vanishes. When he is in the company of inmates he becomes just another guy from the hood, replacing "this" with "dis'' and "that" with "dat.'' He is part Chinese, part Hispanic, part African-American and part American Indian. "I'm a Heinz 57 variety kind of guy,'' he says. "Just like most of my dogs, I'm a mutt.''
For the record, he and his wife, Sam, a nuclear chemist, have 13 mutts at home. In Tallahassee he operates A Good Dog Academy, an obedience school, and gives private lessons to desperate owners tired of chasing impudent dogs from the couch. He has been at it for three decades. "I don't train dogs,'' he says. "I actually train people to train their dogs.
"Helping a dog ain't brain surgery,'' he says, "but you have to be a psychologist. You have to see the world from the dog's viewpoint before things are going to happen. A dog only learns what the human teaches him.''
His mantra is "be kind.'' He likes to say that dogs and people are peas from the same pod. We both want love. Sometimes to make the point he brings up serial killer Ted Bundy, whose victims included two Florida State University female students in 1978. After the poster boy for evil died in the electric chair even some folks opposed to the death penalty slept better.
"I love Ted Bundy. Want to know why? Because he was a human being. I hate what he did, but you have to wonder about what happened to him when he was a baby, when he was a little boy, to make him go bad like he did. I'm guessing he didn't get enough love. What would he have been like if he had been brought up different, with love?
"Same thing with a dog. You give it unconditional love and affection, and man, the love and affection going to come right back at you.''
• • •
King didn't know what to think when the nice women from Citizens for Humane Animal Treatment offered to pay him a modest fee to teach prison inmates dog-handling skills. But he was willing to give it a try.
Wakulla Correctional is not home to serial murderers and sex offenders. The 1,500 inmates who live in the modest dorms or barracks are often thieves, drug users and con men who disappointed parents, teachers, girlfriends, wives and children on their way.
They get here by requesting an assignment to Wakulla, a "Faith and Character''-based institution, where inmates receive religious and life-skill instruction. They learn languages, public speaking, writing, landscaping, carpentry, roofing and how to start small businesses. The waiting list recently reached 600. The warden says about 93 percent of inmates who finish their sentences at his prison stay out of prison in the future. In other prisons, one out of three inmates come back.
"The idea is that when you get out of here, you're a better person," the warden says. "You've learned something worth learning and you're qualified for some kind of job.''
Nobody thought that "dog trainer" might show up on future resumes.
• • •
Before he lived behind a double fence topped by razor wire, watched closely by guards, supervised almost every minute of every day, deprived of the company of loved ones, Kevin McMullan delivered seafood up the Atlantic seaboard all the way to Boston, with a stop in Manhattan at the Fulton Fish Market. He also had a 20-year cocaine habit. He held up a hardware store in Orange County in 2007.
Now he lives in the T-1 barracks. He is 41 and has short brown hair and hazel eyes. Among his four tattoos is the name of a lost love, Ashley.
McMullan has four years left on his sentence. In June, he was among 36 inmates who signed up for the new Paws in Prison program. "It sounded interesting to me. You know, something new.'' Prison is a lot of things, but exciting isn't one of them.
The dog whisperer, Jay King, had a lot of questions. Had inmates signed up for his program out of boredom? Were they too selfish and too antisocial to work as a team? Were they capable of loving a dog? He had no idea.
"Some dogs, and some inmates, have a problems with authority. To tell the truth, I do too. But someone has to be in charge. Someone has to be the alpha dog. Me.''
King thought Pooh might be a good fit for McMullan for the simplest reason. Pooh is a large, strong animal and McMullan is a large, strong man.
Sleepy-eyed Joshua Allen, inmate No. U28856 , imprisoned on a drug charge, got the high-energy golden Lab, Sunshine. A mellow burglar, Scott Wilcoxson, inmate No. R49178, was assigned a mellow cocker spaniel, Captain. Robber Mitchell Lacey, inmate No. U21361, with a tattoo that says "Crazy White Boy,'' took control of Jax, a Lab-Rottweiler mix.
Howard Preston IV, inmate No. 469666 from Palm Beach County, who has a quiet, gentle manner, received a high-strung redbone hound, Reba. "She wouldn't listen to anyone,'' Preston says. "She was so shy. I had to earn her trust. I gave her a lot of treats and massages.'' In his previous life, Preston manufactured and sold cocaine. He also had a chihuahua, Trixie. He wants to train dogs professionally one day — perhaps open his own obedience school — after he finishes his prison sentence in 2017.
• • •
Sometimes the dog whisperer roams a room full of inmates like Groucho Marx in A Day at the Races, bent and rambunctious, cracking wise. "Tell me your name again. I have a good memory but it's short.'' At other times, King grows quiet and watches the inmates work things out on their own. He's an old Navy man — he served in Vietnam — and part of him recalls boot camp.
"All humans and all animals are pack animals,'' he shouts. "We're a pack. Say it!''
''We're a pack!''
"I can't hear you.''
''WE'RE A PACK!''
Twelve inmates get to be trainers. Each trainer has two assistants who do everything from walk dogs to clean up. At night, the dogs sleep in wire kennels pushed up against the bunks.
"Don't show fear,'' King says when lessons resume. "The dog will know you are unstable. Fear is an unstable quality. Hyper is an unstable quality. In the wild, unstable qualities will prevent the pack from finding food. So the pack will kill the unstable dog. What's my point? You have to be stable to teach your dog stability. It ain't rocket science.''
He teaches inmates to use dog biscuits and praise to teach dogs to return to their kennels. He teaches inmates the art of teaching their dog to sit, to shake hands, to walk calmly on a leash, to come. "Listen, dogs want to please you. Take advantage of it.''
He forbids corporal punishment for any offense.
When he notices a trainer admonishing an assistant in a harsh manner, he takes him aside. "Be careful how you talk to another man. Count to 10 before you say something that everybody will regret.''
• • •
"My dream is to gradually spend less and less time at the prison," the dog whisperer says a while later. "My goal is to let the current trainers train the next generation of trainers. Then those guys will train the next generation. I hope this program continues for a long time.''
The first crop of dogs are leaving, headed hopefully for good homes and people who will love them. A new pack of dogs will be coming in for eight weeks of training. The first trainers King trained will train new trainers.
The recreation room on the prison campus gradually fills up. There are dog people from Citizens for Humane Animal Treatment, wardens from other prisons, stone-faced guards, VIPs from the Department of Corrections in Tallahassee.
They make speeches. They show a video of the Paws in Prison program. They snack on cookies shaped like Milk Bones and eat crackers and salsa served in dog bowls.
A tape plays Pomp and Circumstance as inmates and dogs march proudly into the room.
Each inmate receives a diploma and a kind word. Each dog receives a treat and a kind word. That's it. It's over.
Out in the prison yard, on the wet green grass, inmates spend their last moments with the graduating dogs.
"I know we're going to get new dogs to train, but this is really tough, man,'' says inmate No. J22148, Robert E. Shull, 30, from Clay County, where he put a torch to another man's truck in 2007. He'll be in prison until Feb. 15, 2010.
Hunkered in the yard, he hugs a Walker hound with all his might.
"Hey,'' Shull says to Jay King. "HEY! He's going to be adopted, right? They ain't going to put Walker to sleep."
"I promise you they ain't going to put him to sleep.''
The dog whisperer grabs the blond inmate by both shoulders. He looks gently into his eyes.
"Listen to me. I want you to hear me clear on this. He's going to be all right. He'll be in a good home.''
Shull gulps and nods. A prison guard waits to escort Shull back to where he belongs.
"Goodbye, Walker,'' Shull says. "Be a good boy.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.