Dog provides unconditional love for Oregon inmates

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) Following, like some kind of canine missile, came Max. The 11-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever kept his eye on the ball and snagged it midair after one bounce. The golden dog proudly carried his prize back to its point of origin.

The session of fetch resembled those repeated every day in a multitude of American backyards and living rooms. This one, however, offered a slight twist. This dog romped inside a medium-security prison surrounded by coiled razor wire, bars and correctional officers.

Max drew laughter from several inmates watching his antics. The men who lounged easily inside the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution's high-ceilinged chapel switched off throwing the tennis ball.

Max showed up at the prison a few weeks ago, the star and inaugural member of the prison's new Animal Assisted Activity program, part of the Inmate Enrichment Program. The idea, said prison chaplain Lorinda Schwarz, is to socialize inmates, ease depression and connect them with the outside world. The men are encouraged to pet and play with Max or just sit quietly and watch him romp.

Schwarz cited research, such as a study done inside the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, suggesting that animals increase morale and communication among inmates and reduce violent, destructive behavior. Interaction between man and dog, Schwarz said, also lowers blood pressure and offers a connection to the community outside the prison.

"Some of these men have been in lock-down for 15 years and haven't had a chance to pet a dog," she said.

Inmate Tim Germond, 29, left his dog behind when he was incarcerated for identity theft and drug record tampering convictions.

"It's been about two years since I've really been around a dog," Germond said.

He finds an outlet in Max.

"I can be angry all week long and come and see Max and it all disappears," Germond said. "I feel loved. All he desires is attention. He gives me a sense of the outside world."

Christopher Hare, 39, sat next to Germond, taking his turn. Hare hasn't seen his Irish wolfhound, Excalibur, since coming to prison on kidnap and burglary convictions. He suspects Excalibur is dead.

"The last time I saw him was in 1994," Hare said.

Hare, Germond and others who come to check books out of the chapel library can spend time with the retriever up to three times each week.

Max belongs to Schwarz's 21-year-old son Jacob, who has Down syndrome. Schwarz and her husband, John, found Max when Jacob was 14.

"Jacob loved to throw," she said. "We went to the Humane Society and told them, 'We need a dog that will retrieve a ball.'"

The volunteer showed them to Max's cage. Historically, the toller was bred to lure ducks and other waterfowl by playing along the shore. Max, like other tollers, loves to retrieve.

"He'll retrieve eight hours a day," Schwarz said. "Every two or three hours, he'll take a 10-minute break. Then he's back at it."

Max sometimes helps out when Schwarz must deliver disturbing news to an inmate. Recently, an inmate petted Max as he visited by phone with his mother, who had recently sustained a serious head injury in a car accident.

Eric Oscarson, 41, is Max's keeper during the dog's prison visits. The religious services aid makes sure Max doesn't escape out the door and introduces the dog to inmates who eye the dog warily. Oscarson said he has witnessed some startling transformations. He described one man as bitter and unhappy until he met Max.

"I'd never seen him smile or express joy," Oscarson said. "The first time he mingled with Max, he was a completely different person."

The toller actually brings a spiritual lift to Germond, who has 11 months left to serve.

"Dog, when you spell it backwards, is god," he said, smiling at the cavorting Max.

The dog has developed a following. As Oscarson walks across the compound each day, other inmates call out, "Is Max here today?"

"Max could have a significant impact," Oscarson said. "He helps them relate to something in a different manner. They can show compassion and love with no strings attached."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press