Darrin Bracken started volunteering at Mutt Matchers in February 2006.
Now, the no-kill shelter will give back to him, in the form of a seeing eye dog named Nestleé.
Mutt Matchers' Pound 2 Pen Partnership is a collaboration between the shelter and the Arizona State Prison, operated by Management and Training Corporation, located in Golden Valley.
Carefully screened non-violent inmates are selected by prison supervisors to participate in each eight-week training program. During those eight weeks, the inmate handlers live and work with five dogs from Mutt Matchers, teaching the animals basic obedience and manners.
The sixth class of Pound 2 Pen dogs, which graduated in July, included one special animal set aside for additional training as a service dog for Bracken, who is legally blind.
Mutt Matchers staff chose Nestleé for this demanding job due to her overall demeanor - she is calm, alert, affectionate and eager to learn.
Nestleé is a 3-year-old chocolate Lab that was originally picked up as a stray by Animal Control. Mutt Matchers is a no-kill dog shelter with strict adoption policies to ensure the well being of adopted dogs and their families. The facility does not take dogs from members of the public; staff chooses dogs well suited for adoption directly from Animal Control.
Upon Nestleé's return to the Mutt Matchers facility following her graduation, Spruiell said there was an immediate bond between Nestleé and Bracken. When the staff realized this dog could present an opportunity for Bracken, they decided to put her into an extended training program to teach her how to function as a guide dog for the volunteer. Bracken also serves on the board of directors for Mutt Matchers.
Sandi Spruiell, the main trainer for the Pound 2 Pen program, said, "None of us has ever trained a seeing-eye dog before. We're learning as we go." Spruiell has extensive training experience with dogs, as a former breeder, a former K-9 officer in Las Vegas and a former veterinary technician, spanning nearly 40 years.
She said, "Nestleé's got the right stuff [to do this job], but it's going to take a while since she wasn't raised from a puppy to do it."
Spruiell said there are three components to Nestleé's program. The first involves teaching Bracken to handle Nestleé through basic obedience training with other dogs at Mutt Matchers. He is currently learning how to walk with dogs at the heel position, make them sit and stay, and other basic commands. "He's got to catch up with [Nestleé's training]," Spruiell said.
Second, Nestleé must be trained to take service-related commands and to lead a vision-impaired person safely through obstacles, including crowds and traffic.
Spruiell and Beth Snook, co-trainer, will lead Nestleé through her final stage of training, wherein the two will take the dog into public situations such as restaurants and retail stores. Only after all of this guide-dog education will Mutt Matchers staff hand Nestleé over to Bracken for good.
Bracken said he is looking forward to feeling comfortable walking outside at night once Nestleé is guiding him. Although he lives within walking distance of several shops and Centennial Park, he thinks it is generally too dangerous for him to make such trips alone in the evening. With Nestleé by his side, he said he won't have to worry so much about traffic or unexpected obstacles.
Although Nestleé is the first seeing-eye dog to be trained as part of Pound 2 Pen, the program will be graduating its seventh class of basic obedience-trained dogs Nov. 30. These dogs are the products of 24-hour-a-day life with their handlers. The inmates take part in eight weekly trainings, but they live every day with the five dogs under their care.
Five dogs will graduate Nov. 30, and the inmate handlers will showcase Nestleé's current abilities as well. Nestleé's training will not be complete for a few months.
Torgerson encouraged all interested residents to attend the Pound 2 Pen graduation. Because the event is at the prison, attendees first must gain clearance from prison staff to ensure everyone's safety. Anyone interested in attending must call the MTC facility at (928) 565-2460. MTC staff will require the names, addresses and driver's license numbers of all those attending the graduation.
The prison is located at 4626 W. English Dr., which is reached from Exit 37 off Interstate 40. The graduation begins at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 30. Mutt Matchers always actively seeks volunteers. Those interested in giving their time may call 718-4364.