Marlys Staley says she never identified as a “dog person” growing up. Her father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture mapping counties, so he’d bring home animals he would find.
“I had a snake in my room for years,” Staley says.
Snakes, cats and even a skunk at one point composed her collection of childhood pets, but never dogs.
Yet years later — after graduating college, spending 18 years as a physical therapist specializing in burn and wound care, publishing books and traveling across the U.S. to speak and teach classes — she’s finally become a dog person.
“I felt like I had accomplished everything I wanted to do,” Staley says of her former career in the medical field.
So in 1997, Staley left her work behind and founded Circle Tail
, a nonprofit that trains hearing and service dogs to partner with individuals in need. It also works as an adoption agency to find “forever homes” for retired dogs or for those unable to successfully complete their service training.
The transition was natural, Staley says, as she’d come across guide dog facilities and had witnessed service dogs accompanying clients with physical disabilities throughout her career.
“I had the medical stuff down because I was used to working in hospitals and I had also done some neurological rehabilitation,” she says. “We had these people who needed therapy, but then the dog becomes the focus. How do we train them
to do such and such?”
Staley made it her personal mission to learn and then to teach others to do the same.
Dogs can inspire!
In a unique partnership, Staley set up service dog training programs for inmates at both the Ohio Reformatory for Women
and the Dayton Correctional Institution
. At DCI, the program “Dogs Can Inspire!” — a name crafted by an inmate who wanted to play off the acronym for the institution itself — incorporates 13 dogs from Circle Tail.
“Some dogs are working on basics, some advanced, and some are doing service skills all day long,” Staley says, explaining that in the program’s initial stages she’d visit the facility twice a week but now checks in with the women on a bi-weekly basis to discuss new ideas and participate in show-and-tell sessions. “They can go to work with some ladies, sometimes go to school with them — they lay down during the class. They have these different things going on all day long, so they learn how to behave in different settings and situations.”
Women in good standing must first participate in a training program, gaining 156 hours of knowledge and hands-on experience, prior to becoming a certified handler and receiving a dog of their own.
“Many of the women who come into the program are in for a very long time, some for life,” says Julia Weems, staff facilitator for the program at DCI. “Being with the dogs helps them to cope and gives them purpose. It improves their self-esteem, as many of them came in with none, and it keeps their minds on something other than themselves and their circumstances. Some of them have never had this kind of responsibility, so it requires selflessness.”
And with that selflessness comes unconditional love from the dogs in return.
“I have noticed some of the women come in very depressed, hopeless and unhappy,” Weems says. “And once they get established in the program, there is an actual physical change in their appearance and demeanor.”
Dog training at Ohio Reformatory for Women
Dogs rotate in and out of the program every four to six months, as they transition back and forth from the prisons to family foster homes and Circle Tail’s on-site kennel and training facility until they’re at least 1 1/2 years old — the age at which they’re ready to be placed with their partner.
“The moving around helps us figure out if the dogs can handle the stress of change,” Staley says. “And they have to come here to get car rides — they can’t practice that in prison. And they have to get in the foster homes, because prison isn’t a home. It’s too regimented, and there are obviously no kids for the dogs to get used to there.”
But despite the frequent changes, the handlers remain connected to their dogs.
“They’ll ask about the dogs all the time, and I always follow up with them,” Staley says. “If the dog gets partnered after training, I’ll get them a picture — same if the dog goes up for adoption — and they’ll ask how so and so is doing and if I’ve heard. They’re concerned, especially if it was their dog.”
According to Staley, it’s all about fulfilling a sense of purpose.
“While the inmates deserve to be in there, at the same time they’re humans,” she says. “And I think when you’re given purpose, you’re going to end up being a better human than when you just sit around and lament.”
A perfect pairing
While handlers are fulfilled with a sense of purpose during training, post-training presents independence and a newfound sense of identity for clients who are successfully partnered with their new canine companion.
Amy Hoh, whom is now on her second service dog from Circle Tail, has been confined to a wheelchair for nearly 17 years — a life-changing experience after having worked for the county 33 years prior.
“I’m blonde and 5-foot-11 and was accustomed to being able to go in and command a room,” Hoh says. “But people are taught ‘Don’t look, don’t stare, don’t talk about it,’ and it was really hard for me to become invisible.”
But when she was partnered with her first dog, Cortez, Hoh says she became visible again.
“I became a human again,” she says.
After the passing of Cortez, Hoh was partnered with Suela, a dog initially trained to support individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“With the emotional side of losing Cortez, I needed a dog that would be loving, and Suela healed that need,” Hoh says. “And she is learning to do some pretty amazing things.”
Suela assists Hoh with everyday tasks like laundry — sorting clothes into piles of whites, darks and lights in addition to removing clothes from the dryer — but she’s also currently learning to detect Ketoacidosis, a precautionary measure for Hoh, whom is also diabetic.
The capabilities the dogs possess make a world of difference in the lives and safety of those with whom they’re paired.
Ganes, for example — a 4 1/2-year-old yellow lab — is partnered with 23-year-old Patrick McWilliams, who decided he could benefit from a dog trained to assist those with epilepsy.
“When I take him with me, I’m certain to stay awake and aware,” McWilliams says. “One time I was falling asleep on a bus ride home from school, and he gave me a big kiss on the face. Dog slobber is sure to wake you up. And for after my seizures, we have taught him the command ‘wake,’ which is meant to help speed up my recovery time and keep me alert. So he’ll begin to lick and nudge me on my hand or leg — or face — until I praise him and he knows I’m ‘awake.’”
As Circle Tail Executive Director, Staley’s daily routine includes being followed around by Ali (sometimes referred to as “Tornado Ali”) and Tica — both of whom were once in the service training program but weren’t appropriate fits due to issues like hesitancy and even allergies — as she completes her work at the organization’s home base east of Loveland. Her new career continues to be fulfilling because sees the impact the dogs have in the lives of all parties involved.
“There’s this sense of security and companionship, and there’s somebody that’s not judgmental,” Staley says. “You can talk to the dogs about anything. And you don’t have to have a person with you nonstop, because if you drop something they can get it for you. It just makes you feel like they give back to the person what the disability took away.”