Susy Tucker marks the time her son with autism, Zach, began hugging her again — after a lapse of four years — by the arrival of Clyde, a chocolate Labrador trained behind bars by a convicted killer.

Within three weeks of Clyde’s arrival at the Tuckers’ home in Colorado Springs, Colo., Zach went from petting his dog to wrapping his arms around his mother. It was a stunning moment, one of many to follow. The boy who once grimaced and whined at any skin-to-skin contact had learned the warmth of touching from a dog.

Zach and Clyde’s story is one of redemption — of how a rescue dog, a prisoner and a boy learned empathy and understanding from one another.

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Zach’s parents had run out of ideas and were skeptical when they stepped into the visiting room at the high-security Sterling, Colo. prison in June 2011. They were just desperate enough to explore inmate Christopher Vogt’s hunch that he could help their son emerge from his shell.

In prison, Vogt learned to train service dogs for people with disabilities, and over the course of a decade he has trained scores of dogs that have lived, one at a time, in a cage in his cell.

He later read books about autism and eventually won permission from prison officials to try to train dogs for kids.

The experiment has been a shining success, said Debi Stevens, director of the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program.

Since Tucker took Clyde home, Vogt and other inmates taught by Vogt have trained another 20 dogs to serve children with autism around the state. Staffers from prisons across the country have visited Colorado prisons in part to learn Vogt’s techniques, in which he acts like a child with autism to teach dogs to respond, Stevens said.

Vogt has since written and illustrated two children’s books about how dogs can help kids with autism.

It wasn’t easy persuading officials that Vogt should speak with Zach directly instead of just relaying messages across a visiting room.

“I get it,” Vogt said recently in the visiting room of Trinidad Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison to which he has been transferred since meeting Zach. Authorities were hesitant about putting a young child in close contact with a killer.

Vogt and David Doremus were convicted of killing Clifton, Colo. resident Gregg Lane Staley on Feb. 9, 1995. Four years later, each got 48-year prison terms for second-degree murder. Vogt is eligible for parole in 2018.

Earlier this month at Trinidad, inmates wearing green uniforms and brown coats, with their inmate numbers stamped on their backs, jogged around an outdoor track while Vogt, often kneeling on the cold ground, trained his latest dog. He demonstrated how his dog will nudge him with his long, narrow snout when Vogt mimics problematic behaviors of the child who will adopt the dog within weeks.

Zach’s dad, Arthur, a special-education teacher in Harrison School District 2, recalls Vogt asking very personal questions about Zach’s behavior so that Vogt could train Clyde accordingly.

“He opened up to us like he was inviting us into his house,” the dad said.

Zach was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The walls of his upstairs bedroom are plastered with posters of Tyrannosaurus rex and glass-encased pin boards displaying rare butterflies. He has scores of science-show DVDs filling a bookcase.

Children such as Zach become encapsulated in their own world as they filter out everything around them except what interests them. They become confused about the outside world.

Zach would wince when touched, claiming it hurt. He stopped hugging his parents when he was 5. By age 9, the third-grader was still doing kindergarten work.

Susy Tucker learned that private service-dog trainers charged $20,000 or more; but the prison program trained them for a fraction of the cost. The Tuckers paid $450 for Clyde and gave Colorado Correctional Industries, which runs the rehabilitation program, $300 for six months of training.

“At first, I didn’t know what to expect,” Zach said after being told he was going to prison. “I thought, ‘What, are you kidding? Are you people this crazy?'”

But, he added, Vogt turned out to be “pretty nice.”

Vogt set strict ground rules. Zach was the only person allowed to pet, feed, water, clean messes after and play fetch with Clyde. After numerous 200-mile trips to Sterling in the spring and summer of 2011, Zach brought Clyde home. There were tears in his eyes, and Susy asked why.

She recalled Zach’s answer: “I feel really bad that I’m taking this dog from Mr. Vogt.”

Was that empathy? It was at least an unusual sentiment for Zach.

“The biggest change I saw from the first day that Clyde came home was that Zach wasn’t staying up all night in his bed crying,” his father said.

Zach shook his head during an interview.

“Taking care of Clyde was really freaking hard,” Zach said. “It’s paying off. He keeps my anxiety down. The focus factor helped.”

On a recent school day at Otero Elementary School, Clyde, now 5, weaved through a crowd of rushing fifth-graders in the cafeteria as he kept pace with Zach, now 11. The other kids didn’t seem to notice the dog whisking by them. Throughout the day, Clyde appeared to be as much a part of school events as a teacher’s aide, which he has become.

There were hiccups, though, said Erin Carroll, Zach’s classroom teacher over the past three years. Clyde barked a few times. Worried that Clyde could be banned, the Tuckers bought a “bark collar,” and when Clyde still barked, they sprayed him with a water bottle.

Clyde quickly became accustomed to school, where students often stood in long lines.

“School routine was a lot like prison routine,” Susy Tucker said.

Clyde has a workman’s mentality when he wears a vest that says “service dog.” Only when the vest comes off will he play with the family’s three other dogs.

Carroll watched Zach gain confidence with Clyde beside him. Whenever Zach daydreams, she asks him how Clyde is doing — and dog and master jump to attention. She sees evidence daily that Vogt’s training paid off. The inmate had taught Clyde to nudge Zach when the boy cries or gets a vacant look on his face.

Clyde has helped Zach become more independent, and the boy has empathized with bullied classmates.

“This year, he’s like every child,” Carroll said.

Ami Nunn, Zach’s special-education teacher, was surprised how quickly Clyde made a difference in Zach’s life.

“He needed a gateway,” Nunn said. “Clyde comforts him. It’s opened so many doors for him. Having Clyde has allowed him to open up to people in a way that I don’t think he would have otherwise. He just has blossomed. He’s brilliant, and he’s articulate.”

In the 2½ years Clyde has been his constant companion, Zach has caught up with his classmates and does eighth-grade-level math, Nunn said.

Zach readily acknowledges how Clyde has improved his life. The dog has also made Zach popular.

“The kids are just swarming,” he said.

Vogt broke down in tears when asked what helping kids such as Zach means to him.

The Tuckers swear by Clyde. They recognize that Zach’s teachers have also made all the difference. Arthur Tucker said he can’t judge what kind of a man Vogt has become or whether he has changed any.

“It is ironic,” he said, “that Mr. Vogt, a person who is isolated from the world by the confines of cement and bars, can help someone like Zachary, a boy who is isolated from the world by the confines of his disability.”

Prison-trained dogs

Colorado Correctional Industries’ Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program was formed with five dogs at the now-defunct Cañon Women’s Correctional Facility on Oct. 28, 2002.

Since then, 3,186 dogs rescued from dog pounds across the state have been trained.

Currently, eight dog-training teams with a total of 136 offenders in six prisons are training dogs to be well-behaved pets and service dogs for people with disabilities, including veterans.

Christopher Vogt was among the first male inmates to train dogs in June 2003 and has since trained more than 100 dogs. He was the first inmate to train a service dog and the first to train a dog to assist a child with autism.

The dogs live with inmates in their cells for one to three months, depending on the various needs of owners. The dogs have been trained to help dress people who are paralyzed or blind, or trained simply to obey common pet commands.

© 2014 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.)
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