By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
In the weak nighttime light of a prison cell, a puppy wakes James Boulé every two hours and asks to go to the bathroom.
Boulé, who is serving a life sentence in the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington, alerts a guard and is escorted with his 9-week-old yellow lab, Atlas, to an outdoor potty area just for dogs.
Boulé is one of three master dog handlers at the prison promoted recently to launch its new program of training service dogs for use by the hearing impaired.
Boulé, with the other master dog handlers Russell Henderson and Ken Nicodemus, had worked since 2014 to train rescue dogs with behavioral issues as part of a collaborative program between the prison and Black Dog Rescue, of Cheyenne.
Henderson and Nicodemus, like Boulé, also are serving life sentences.
This month, the prison announced its joint effort with International Hearing Dog Inc., of Colorado, which will entrust puppies to the three men for about a year.
During that time, the master handlers are to take the pups almost everywhere. They’ll be expected to potty train, socialize and care for their puppies and to teach them some of the basic commands and auditory sound responses they’ll need to serve their future owners.
After that, the dogs will return to IDHI for their final training phases.
Henderson, Nicodemus and Boulé have been trained by and still face weekly training sessions from IHDI. They also are held to high standards for complying with and respecting the rules of the prison in order to keep their jobs as trainers.
And they’re carrying the lessons they’ve learned from working with rescue dogs into their new specialty as service dog handlers.
‘We Put Up So Many Walls’
In the rescue dog program, the men had about nine weeks per dog to turn a vicious, suspicious, fearful or rejected creature into a model canine citizen ready for adoption outside the prison’s walls.
They discovered that even troubled dogs can change.
“Russ (Henderson) had one dog that was on death’s doorstep” when she arrived, Nicodemus told Cowboy State Daily while his 12-week-old golden-doodle Augie slept nearby. “And he held that little dog, and she became a super awesome little dog.”
Henderson’s rescue dog, Rylee, didn’t have health issues, but she was violent.
“When she came in, she was wanting to kill other dogs on sight,” Nicodemus continued. “When (Henderson) was done with her, she was playing with other dogs in the play area and stuff. It was really great to see that transition – that transformation.”
Henderson, who doesn’t have a puppy yet because he’s still training a rescue dog, countered that the dogs aren’t the only ones transforming.
A lot of men inside the prison system have “put up walls,” preferring to be alone or to appear tough and unapproachable, he said, adding that he, too, was angry and withdrawn before he became a trainer.
“And you see these dogs go up to (inmates), then you’ll see them making goo-goo noises, and kissy noises,” said Henderson with a laugh. “(The dogs) really humanize us in ways that, in here, you don’t really see, because we put up so many walls.”
Touch Lives Outside of Here
For Boulé, training rescue dogs and now his new puppy Atlas is a rare chance after the nearly 26 years he’s served so far to have a positive impact on the world on both sides of the prison’s walls.
“There’s so little opportunities for us to make up for the things that we have done,” said Boulé, adding that training the dogs gives him a chance to help others and to improve his own character.
“That’s a big thing for those of us that really want to try to make amends and to better ourselves as people,” Boulé said.
Nicodemus agreed, saying that the dogs teach him while he teaches them. Because dogs are intuitive to people’s needs, he said, he’s reminded to consider the needs of others as well.
And there are a lot of needs inside a prison.
“You’ll have people who are sad, they’re down and out, people who are awkward socially; people with mental health issues and can’t really communicate,” said Nicodemus. “So those types of people have a tendency to be overlooked, to be neglected. And to watch these dogs go up to them when they’re in need, really has changed my life.”
Nicodemus recalled one instance when his rescue dog went to another inmate and nudged his head under the man’s hand.
Some time afterward, the man told Nicodemus that he’d learned by phone of his mother’s death earlier that day.
‘Haven’t Seen It Do Anything Bad’
The master trainers credited WMCI Officer Bethany Sanders with organizing the two dog programs for them, along with Deputy Warden Marlena McManis.
Sanders said she’s only seen good from the programs so far, and has watched multiple men go through their own training, then train their dogs, and emerge from that experience as different people.
The staff are delighted by the dogs too, added Sanders with a chuckle.
“It’s a good program, and I haven’t seen it do anything bad,” she said.
Henderson said it’s been difficult to say goodbye to the rescue dogs when their nine weeks of training ends, and it never got easier.
“It breaks your heart every single time,” he said.
Boulé and Nicodemus agreed.
Nicodemus said he’s bonded more with some dogs than others, but he loves them all.
Boulé likes the tough cases.
“My favorite ones are the ones that are real fearful and they won’t let nobody touch them when they first get here – but (by the time) they leave, they’re going up to people and allowing affection,” said Boulé.
“I really enjoy working with those.”