The dog who got a second chance ... in prison

From homeless to prison to parole, how this abandoned 'sweet monster' of a dog found his forever home.
Image: Titan
Titan trains in the yard at LutherLuckett as part of Paws Behind Bars Prison Training programAdopt Me! Bluegrass Pet Rescue
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By Dana McMahan

“He's the sweetest monster we've ever seen.”

The first time we found Titan when he ran away, that's what the women who'd caught him running down the street and leashed him up said. The year-old Great Pyrenees/German Shepherd mix, littermate to our own dog, had jumped his owner's fence and we'd gone in search of him.

Nearly a year later he was out again, and this time his owner was done. “Whoever finds him can keep him,” said their Facebook post late this spring. We only knew Titan from a few puppy playdates, having been connected through the farmer who gave us Cash. The chicken farmer we knew from buying her delicious eggs at the market; when our loss of a dog coincided with her Great Pyr livestock guardian escaping (it must run in the family!) and coming back later to have a litter of beautiful puppies, it seemed fate that we took little Cassius Thunderpaws (Cash) home. I met up with Titan's person a couple of times to let the boys romp, and stayed in touch on Facebook to admire dog photos as both our boys grew.

Titan was as loving and exuberant as our Cash, and maybe even bigger. (I'm frequently stopped on walks and asked if I need a saddle to ride my pony.) But in a real-life example of nature vs. nurture, Titan was un-trained and un-neutered while Cash started training at eight weeks old. But I didn't realize how well-behaved Cash was till Titan came to visit. Titan didn't have a bad bone in his body; he just didn't know. He couldn't walk on a leash, would jump on people he liked (which is everyone), and was basically the real-life bull in a china shop.

But when I learned he was roaming busy city streets we had to go get him. It didn't take long, asking everyone nearby if they'd seen a big brown dog running loose, for my husband and I to find him in an alley and get him home. His owner relinquished him gratefully.

Titan didn't have a bad bone in his body; he just didn't know.

And now what? I asked myself. We couldn't keep him. Running an Airbnb out of our home would make it impossible to have a giant wildling on the loose — he was a freight train when he wasn't tethered or in a (giant) crate — and I wasn't physically up to the job of training such a strong, willful dog. We had virtually no back yard, and I couldn't let him run off-leash in our nearby park like his trained brother for much-needed exercise.

That left re-homing him. What's the old saying about trying to sell a ketchup popsicle to a man in a white suit? That's what it felt like as I tried to wrangle someone into taking Titan. Free to good home: Large male dog, puppy inside a pony's body. Wreaks havoc and needs abundant exercise but you won't be able to walk him. Behind on veterinary care. Cries if you go out of his sight, pees when he's happy. But I promise he's a hunk'a burning love, guys, and so smart! OK I didn't say that exactly, but I had to be truthful lest Titan end up on the run again.

Free to good home: Large male dog, puppy inside a pony's body.

Finding a home for Titan

There were no takers. I grew more desperate, pleading with rescues, posting on Facebook groups for Great Pyr owners, and writing everyone I knew who might help. I cried every time I looked at his big, sweet face. Titan had so much love to give.

I'd learned by now that rescue organizations are overwhelmed, absolutely flooded, with unwanted dogs. Titan had to compete for a spot with untold numbers of pups whose people had given them up. I wanted to launch a new hashtag campaign to balance the good intentions of #adoptdontshop. Please, by all means adopt a rescue if you will commit to the dog. But where is the accountability for owners that dump their dogs? Where is the #dogsareforkeeps campaign? I knew all those abandoned dogs needed help as much as Titan did and I couldn't help all of them, but I could help this one, and I doubled down.

Finally one of my “Can you help find Titan a home?” emails clicked. A local media personality who had a big following and was a passionate advocate for rescues shared my Titan post. It got in front of somebody who knew somebody who worked with a local nonprofit called Adopt Me! Bluegrass Pet Rescue that partnered with Luther Luckett Correctional Complex outside of Louisville, Kentucky, on a prison training program. It would be perfect — Titan could be paired with someone who had all the time in the world to work with him. The connection made, I poured all my efforts into getting them to take him.

“Look at his potential,” I pleaded, sending photos and videos of his brother's off-leash heel and long-distance recall. I knew Titan could do this too, with enough training. Happily, the folks at the rescue agreed to meet with us.

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And the sweet monster won their hearts as swiftly as he had won ours. I couldn't help sobbing as I drove away after turning him over to the wonderful women, but knew he was on the right path. And as soon as I saw a progress photo from the prison I could breathe easy.

Titan goes to prison

Titan was paired with Douglas Hall, a 40-year-old who'd been incarcerated nine years before and was now part of the Paws Behind Bars training program. He, too, saw the sweet monster's potential. In a written interview midway through training (the prison declined my request for a visit), “Titan's response to training has been really remarkable,” Hall told NBC News BETTER. “He is very smart picking up a new command. His drive to please and work for treats is impressive.”

Hall could offer what Titan needed: undivided attention, and patience. “Titan and I spend almost every hour of the day together,” he said. Starting before sun-up, “when I feed him or take him out to potty Titan is always in training,” he went on. Everything was an opportunity for Titan to learn how to behave outside of prison — how to eat without guarding his food, how to wait at exposed thresholds and not cross without his handler, how to walk with a loose leash, not jump on people, not run up to other dogs, ignore distractions. “Each day I try [to] work on composure, visitor control, walk, heel, sit, down, stay, and come,” Hall said.

But it wasn't just Titan who benefited. “Titan is my emotional support animal,” Hall said. He took Titan to an AA meeting, where the dog's loving nature was a hit. “Titan is very popular with everyone on the yard,” he added. “Everyone wants to pet him and see him.”

“This program helps inmates on the yard who may be dealing with hardships in their life,” Hall said. “It's therapy for everyone.” And it “does so much more than train dogs for adoption,” he went on. “We are teaming up with the community to save dogs and help other families that need a therapy, service, or emotional support dog. Each time a dog is adopted [I] feel that the community is giving us, the inmate, a second chance.”

Each time a dog is adopted [I] feel that the community is giving us, the inmate, a second chance.

Paws Behind Bars also sparked a passion in Hall. He didn't know how to hold a leash when he began the program, he said, but after training 60 dogs, including some for therapy and service work, he wants to become a licensed trainer when he is released, he said. “I would like to one day work with a non-profit to put therapy dogs in schools to help with … gun violence,” he said.

There will be many more dogs to train in the meantime; Hall is serving 25 years. “In July of 2003 I injured my left knee at work,” he explained. “I was going to one doctor to the next. Each one would write more pain pills out for me. ...I did not know how addiction would take over my life. In January of 2006 I agreed to drive my co-offender to rob a drug dealer in Madison county, Kentucky. My co-offender he killed the woman who lived there. ...This horrible crime should never have happened and I am remorseful to all that was hurt that day.”

While it can be hard to see a dog he's bonded leave, “my hopes and dreams for Titan is to go to a family who loves him more than I do,” Hall said. “The family will use the training … so that he can go out for walks or a baseball game. So the family and others can enjoy this big happy dog. Titan will instantly put a smile on your face and make any family happier.”

On parole

Titan finished the training program this summer and we went to see him at an adoption event. Though the change in his behavior was nothing short of miraculous — I could walk him on a leash! — the families attending the event mostly veered away from the great big dog in favor of smaller pups. He went back to the prison.

Titan can walk on a leash after his time at Paws Behind Bars Prison Training program.Brian McMahan

Then, another small miracle. Titan went to work on a film project.

Midwest Animal Training in Cincinnati, another brilliant program — this one run by Megan-Kate Hoover — finds rescue dogs for work in movies and commercials. She trains them for the project and fosters them until they're adopted, she told NBC News BETTER.

With a background in wildlife rehabilitation and veterinary medicine beginning in childhood — she started volunteering at age nine — Hoover turned to animal training when an auto-immune disease prevented her from attending veterinary school. After a career that spanned several states and countries, and animals ranging from dolphins to elephants, she was recruited to work at the Cincinnati Zoo where she became curator of animal development and training. That's when the film commission in Cincinnati came in search of someone to evaluate a film set for animal safety. And oh, by the way, they needed a dog — and for the dog to be trained in 10 days — for the film project.

At a rescue, Hoover said, “I found a little dog just pulled from a puppy mill … he had never been out of a cage in his adult life.” After she trained him for the project he found a new home — with her mother in law. “That's how this all got started,” she said. “Now I'm so busy doing films and commercials that I quit the zoo a few years ago.”

Help wanted: naughty dog

Enter Titan. A local photographer shooting a promotional piece for a new video venture needed a family dog who could play being bad when a new baby comes along. For five weeks on her Cincinnati area farm, Hoover worked with Titan teaching him to perform for the shoot.

She quickly learned he needed a lot of exercise before work. “Otherwise he could not function,” she said. The other key? “Allowing him to be a dog. He reminded me of dolphins, you have to meet them where they're at, they want to have fun. … If it wasn't fun for him he was done.” She also couldn't train him when he was hungry.

“Luckily he was one of the smartest dogs I've ever worked with,” Hoover said. “Insanely intelligent. Once he learned what I wanted, and once I learned how he needed to be communicated with it was so easy.” She trained him to play the naughty dog who puts his head on the baby's chair while the baby was eating (his brother Cash, meanwhile, rests his head on the dining table every night while we eat with no prompting so maybe it's a family trick!), steal toys and blankets and tears them up, even suck on a pacifier. The spot ends with the mom sitting on the ground with the baby. Titan, she said, “lays down and puts his head on her lap as if to say he's sorry.”

Titan/Otis at his new homeCourtesy Fields family

Love at first sight

Meanwhile Hoover was preparing to sell her farm, Jane Fields (who requested privacy, so her name has been changed) came to see the place. Her family had three big rescue dogs at home already and didn't have plans for a fourth. But on her second visit to the farm, “I was out at the barn and we were talking to [Megan-Kate's husband] and she brought Titan out. It was just love at first sight,” she said. “He's like a big teddy bear. He was so sweet and my son loved him and I loved him, and my husband has always loved big dogs.”

Titan/Otis with his new family.Courtesy Fields family

Since they were going to buy the farm and have all this space, they decided to give Titan a shot and she took him home for a weekend trial with the rest of the canine family. That's all it took for Titan to work his magic. All four dogs “got along fabulously,” Fields said. “I don't want say I have a favorite, but it's hard not to be in love with this dog. He's well trained too. We're just really thrilled.”

Titan — who's now called Otis, or Odie for short — starts his day at 6:00 am, like he did in prison. But now he's on the Fields' five-acre lot where they're still living until the farm purchase is complete. Quickly trained to their invisible fence, Titan/Odie “loves going in the woods,” Fields said. “He loves barking at the squirrels and digging and running around playing with the German Shepherd.”

He's living a dog's life, the life he deserves, thanks to a series of people willing to give a sweet monster a chance.

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