HOMINY — After falling on hard times in Tulsa, Casper ended up at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy for a 10-week stay. Now he’s on his way to the Tulsa County jail for a permanent stay, and it’s a perfect fit.

Tulsa County Jail Administrator David Parker put it well: “Casper can’t live outside, and our guys can’t go outside,” he said.

The relationship between the fair-skinned, white pit bull with gentle green eyes and a disposition to match and Oklahoma’s jail system is emblematic of nonprofit CARE Rescue’s STAR Prison Dog Training Program, which celebrated its second anniversary and sixth graduation ceremony at Dick Conner on Thursday.

CARE board member Susan Tilkin said the program is going strong.

“We knew it wouldn’t be short term, but to reach two years is exciting,” she said. “We’re ready to go for three, four and more.”

CARE is Compassionate Animal Rescue Efforts, a nonprofit, all-volunteer program; STAR is a moniker created by the Dick Conner inmates, which stands for Save, Train and Rehabilitate.

So far, 47 dogs saved from certain death have graduated from six 10-week sessions to move on to permanent, loving homes.

Each class of seven or eight dogs is assigned to 16 handlers who applied and were chosen for the program. Six of the 16 original inmates chosen to be handlers at Dick Conner have participated with every group.

It’s a big commitment as the dogs are with a handler 24/7 throughout the 10-week program. CARE Rescue trainers offer weekly instruction for the handlers, who are entirely in charge of their canines.

Dick Conner Correctional Center Warden Janet Darling said the program has more than met expectations.

“The STAR program impacts not only the men participating as trainers but the entire institution,” she said. “One of the early rescue dogs is a permanent resident at DCCC and has become a certified therapy dog. She regularly visits the patients living in the facility’s long-term care infirmary. You can almost hear the smiles when she comes into a room and stops to be petted.

“The rescue dogs provide a moment of normalcy in a very artificial environment. These moments assist in making this facility a more positive place to not only serve time but for our officers and staff to work.”

The goal of the project, the fourth of its kind in Oklahoma, is to partner the dogs with incarcerated inmates to offer a second chance for the dogs and a new chance for each handler to learn a skill while caring for another living being.

For Casper, the fit is more than natural. CARE board member Susan Tilkin said the pup was found roaming the streets of north Tulsa in the summer of 2018, thin and suffering from severe skin irritations. He spent three months in an animal hospital being treated for demodex, sarcoptic mange and ringworm.

On top of the health issues, it was apparent that the dog had suffered verbal and physical abuse, as he was fearful of a stick, a raised hand and any verbal commands, Tilkin said. After nine months with an experienced CARE volunteer who nursed him to health, the dog showed itself to be “a sweet soul,” she said.

“Almost all of his hair was gone,” she said. “They used to have to apply ointment all the time. He looks so much better, but he would sunburn very easily.”

Kevin and Lance, two Dick Conner inmates, would be his official co-trainers for the next 10 weeks. Prison officials asked that inmates’ last names not be used.

Kevin said Casper needed to have baths with a special shampoo and that it took some special care to get him to come when called into the shower room.

“He doesn’t really like it, but he’ll do it,” he said. “He’s been a good dog.”

The command to “stay” is Casper’s top skill, he said. “You can put him anywhere and tell him to stay, and he will,” he said. “I’ll put him up by the gym and walk all the way across the yard, about 200 yards, I suppose, and then I can call him to me.

“That’s the only time he really runs,” he added with a chuckle. “He’s pretty calm most of the time.”

Parker said Casper is part of Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado’s progressive vision for the county jail. He will live in the new veterans pod at the jail, which houses about 77 inmates who are military veterans in an “open dorm-style” living arrangement.

“It’s almost like a barracks,” Parker said.

Casper will have the run of the pod and likely will make a lot of friends in his many years to come.

“Nobody in our jail is a convicted felon. They’ve had a bump in the road,” Parker said. “Our veterans have paid a great debt to this country, so why would we not do everything we can to try to get them back?”

Casper’s role will be to be the obedient, gentle, trained, housebroken, people-friendly dog he has become.

“When you don’t have a friend in the world and the whole world seems to be against you and you’re having your own mental health issues and things are going wrong, what do you need?” Parker asked. “You need a friend, and what is a dog?”

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Kelly Bostian






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