LEBANON, Ohio--Eddie Hill has to give away his dog again. He's absently petting the head of his panting chocolate lab, Meatball, who's not much older than a puppy. Over the past two months, Hill taught Meatball how to sit, roll over, high five, heel and--Hill's favorite--how to pretend to get shot and then slowly crash to the floor in a trick called "bang." The two have spent every moment together, with Meatball even sleeping in Hill's shared 7 by 10 foot cell with him every night.
"This one, he's like one of the best dogs I've had," Hill says. "He's awesome."
Hill's been caring for and training dogs in three-month stints for 10 years. He's only a few months away from becoming a certified apprentice dog handler in Ohio, which takes thousands of hours of work. After each schooling period, Hill has to let his dog go back to 4Paws for Ability, a non-profit that trains the dogs professionally before placing them with disabled children around the country.
You'd think Hill would be used to saying goodbye by now, but he isn't.
"I just let myself get attached every time," he says, rubbing Meatball's neck. "I don't want to see this one go, he's too cool."
'HE'S THE SWEETEST'
Back at 4Paws' headquarters, two dozen miles away, founder Karen Shirk says she would hire Hill full-time as a trainer without hesitation. Except that Hill's in jail, and will be for a very long time.
But that's part of the set up. 4Paws places its dogs with prisoners to get basic training for periods of no more than three months, before professional instructors take over. The prison program saves 4Paws money on training and helps the group place more than 100 dogs a year with children who have disabilities such as autism and epilepsy that aren't traditionally treated with service animals.
"I'm telling you right now, we're not allowed to hire anybody that has a felony, but if [Hill] was ever released from prison we'd have to look for a way around that," Shirk said. "Eddie is a phenomenal dog trainer."
Hill has been in the program the longest time of any inmate in the six prisons 4Paws uses for preliminary training, and he's by far the best handler. Shirk was so impressed with Hill's skills and likeability that she looked him up one day to see what crime he could have possibly committed, convinced it would be something minor. It was double murder.
"I...saw a picture of him and his eyes were so hard and angry looking and then you see him today, you'd never believe it was the same guy, " Shirk said in an interview in her office, which is plastered with photographs and paintings of her dogs, past and present. "He's the sweetest. He's not a big man. He's probably not taller than me. He kind of looks like a librarian or something."
THE ROAD TO PRISON
When Eddie Hill was 23, he rear-ended a white truck while his brother-in-law, Donald Palmer, rode with him in the passenger seat. Police suspected that the pair was planning to rob the home of Palmer's ex-wife's boyfriend's house nearby, but they never made it that far. When the driver got out and confronted Hill, Palmer took out his gun and shot him. Palmer then shot and killed a passing driver who had stopped to help, saying later that he was afraid the man witnessed his first crime. Hill and Palmer hid the bodies and evidence until Palmer confessed to the police. Hill maintained that Palmer killed the men on his own, but Palmer testified that Hill encouraged the shootings.
Hill arrived at Warren Correctional Institution in a bucolic area outside Cincinnati, Ohio in 1990, three years later. He was convicted of double murder and sentenced to prison for two lifetimes; his partner in crime, the one who pulled the trigger in both cases, was sentenced to death and is scheduled to be executed this September.
Hill passed the time as best he could, joining a music class at one point. It wasn't until 2002 that he decided to enter Warren's dog program, which was then a partnership with a local animal shelter. Later, 4Paws took over the program, supplying food and kennels in exchange for the prisoners' constant training attention for their budding service dogs.
Hill discovered he had a natural talent for training, and found his patience and calm growing with every dog. He says that working with the dogs and knowing that they help disabled children has transformed his personality—and changed his life.
"It gives me the feeling that I'm doing something in the world, some good, without just sitting here wasting my time," Hill says in a small interview room in the prison. "Just to be able to pet the dog and...I don't know, you can just loosen up and be a human being. Guys in here are all about looking tough and being tough all the time. You can just get with the dog and just...let all that go."
IT BEGAN WITH A BARK
Shirk started 4Paws in 1998 after several service dog agencies had turned her down when she requested a dog to help her with her disease, a rare neuromuscular condition called Myasthenia Gravis that had left her on a respirator and in a wheel chair as a young social worker in her 20s. The agencies told her that people on respirators couldn't have service dogs. A friend finally convinced her to get a German shepherd puppy, named Ben, and Shirk trained him to do basic mobility work—such as opening doors and taking off her shoes and socks--with help from local handlers. One day when a dangerous mix of post-operation medicines had knocked Shirk unconscious, Ben may have saved her life by answering a phone call from Shirk's father and then barking into the phone repeatedly. Her father called for help, and Shirk was rushed to the hospital.
Shirk then decided that everyone who could benefit from a service dog should be able to have one. With 4Paws, she became one of the first trainers to place dogs with children who have epilepsy, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other "invisible" disabilities not traditionally treated with service animals. Her work has overturned earlier assumptions that only adults with certain disabilities, such as blindness, could be helped by a service dog.
Ben died ten years ago, but Shirk's current service animal, a small and pampered papillon named Piper, has taken over. She can sense when Shirk is about to have an attack triggered by her disease, and furiously scratches on Shirk's chest with her paws, which alerts Shirk to take special medicine to stave off the attack. (Shirk is no longer wheelchair-bound, and she now breathes with the help of a tracheostomy tube in her throat.)
Shirk credits Ben with saving her life, pulling her out of a depression, and helping her manage her illness. She thinks the prisoners are saved by their dogs as well, in a way. "A lot of them have never really known love," Shirk says. "They've never really known unconditional, just pure love. They get that from the dogs."
LET THE TRAINING BEGIN
After Hill shows me Meatball's tricks, he heads over to the room where Jeremy Dulebohn, 4Paws' training director, is taking 18 uniformed inmates seated in a circle through the basics of how to train their dogs. Hill and some of the other inmates had just given up their old dogs and were getting acquainted with their new pups. One tattooed inmate was given a small furry dog that would have looked more in place at a nursing home than a prison. The inmate carried the little dog in the crook of his arm, shaking his head in disbelief.
Hill was working with a large, hyper golden retriever that didn't make the cut to be a service dog, but has behavioral issues preventing her from being adopted. He seemed to have already recovered from losing Meatball. "You better straighten up," Hill cooed to his new dog. "We're going to make you act right."
"It's a looooove match," Hill joked when his new dog lies down next to his friend's German shepherd.
Another inmate, Gregg Myers, was ineffectually trying to get his black lab puppy, Bitsy, to stop taking a nap and learn how to lay down on his chest on command, a skill that the dogs use to calm autistic children when they sense they are getting upset. "She just loves to please," a bespectacled Myers said enthusiastically. Myers, who was convicted of murdering his father and step-mother as they slept in 2003, rewarded his puppy with treats that he kept in a baggy in the waistband of his drawstring blue pants.
At Warren, only inmates who have no disciplinary infractions over a year-long period can apply for a dog, and inmates who were convicted of sex crimes or domestic violence are barred completely, no matter how exemplary their in-prison behavior is. Over 10 years, only one dog has been injured in the program, according to Shirk, when another inmate jumped a dog handler. "The dogs get excellent care in the prison," Shirk said, adding that her experience with foster homes has generally been more unreliable.
Karen Shirk with her service dog, Piper, in the 4Paws office. (Yahoo/Goodwin)
'MAYBE PRISON PRESERVED ME'
Prison animal programs--most of them involving dogs but some with cats, horses, and farm animals--are up and running in at least 159 prisons in 36 states, according to research by Professor Gennifer Furst at William Paterson University. There's no comprehensive studies on whether prison dog programs lessen violence in prisons or help with inmate rehabilitation, but studies of animal programs at other institutions, such as hospitals, suggest that animals generally improve the atmosphere and lower stress levels.
Hill says he grew particularly attached to a little papillon, which Shirk places with deaf people, and was surprised to find that the other inmates didn't give him a hard time for having such a small dog in tow. "Everybody loves them dogs," Hill says. "These big tattooed up guys are like, 'oooo look at those little dogs!' You wouldn't believe it. The papillons walk around kind of cocky for a little dog."
Whatever the effect on the prison as a whole, Hill says the program has affected him.
"I've changed a lot," says the 46-year-old. "I don't know if some of it is just getting older, but my patience has gotten way better."
"You look about 22, Eddie," Dulebohn, the 4Paws trainer, jokes.
"Well, maybe prison preserved me," Hill said.
Though Dulebohn says he would hire Hill in a "heartbeat" as a trainer, Hill is more than three decades away from his first parole hearing.
"If I were to get out I would definitely love to do this. I don't see the parole board until 2049," he said. "So that's a long time. I wish I would have known something like this when I was out there, that I had a knack for it because I definitely would be doing it."
Shirk thinks he's paid his debt. "He made a mistake when he was just a kid and he's paid for it his whole life," she said. "He's going to spend his entire life in there."