With clowns, colored streamers, cotton candy, nearly 80 dogs and one nervous cat, and at least one little girl pretending to be a lion, Sunday afternoon was not a typical day at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.
It was the second annual Puppy Days, when the inmates get to show off the dogs they've been raising for the facility's Leader Dog program.
Prisoners receive a puppy that they care for every day. They teach it 19 commands such as sit, stay and down. At the end of a year, the puppies are taken to Rochester, Mich. for further training.
This year the event had a circus theme, so several inmates dressed as clowns. Red noses and party hats were passed out at the door, cotton candy and popcorn was sold, and jaunty tunes on a circus calliope were piped through the sound system in the gym.
The day was a chance for the dogs' sponsors to meet them.
"That's the only way we can raise puppies in prison, someone else pays for the dog food," said puppy counselor Carol Kirkbride, who teaches the inmates how to teach the dogs. For the occasion, she had dressed as a ringmaster with a giant top hat and a whistle to keep the show moving.
The gym became very crowded as 77 dogs and their handlers paraded around in circles through the center and through the isles of spectators. Then the handlers had the dogs lay on the floor while the handlers walked in a circle around them, even stepping over them at times.
They put them through all kinds of paces, showing the sponsors how well the dogs could obey commands and follow their human in a crowd.
Jason Ross was the one with the cat. He said the whole thing was a lot of excitement for the cat, Max.
"They have him for the dog program, to train them to not get distracted," Ross said. "One of the biggest reasons dogs don't make it is distractions, so we expose them to as many distractions as we can."
Bruce Hatter is currently raising two dogs. He explained how the Leader Dog officials evaluate the puppies to weed out those who aren't going to make it.
"This is a 3 day event for us. For us it starts on Friday when they come down from Michigan to evaluate the dogs," he said. "I'll probably spend an hour talking to the sponsors afterwards."
The prison program has an unusually high success rate.
"Our success rate is 70 percent. Out on the streets, it's more like 40 percent. We have a lot of time in here, and we use it to train the dogs," he said.
What was it like living with a puppy?
"It wears me out," he said. On the other hand, "They're very easy to work with. They take right to you, and once you bond with the dog, it's all downhill from there.
"I came in when I was about 19 years old; I've spent most of my life in prison, so I've been isolated from dogs and things like that," he said. "As I took on this task, I wanted to find out what it was like for my parents to raise me, because I've never had any children."
Warden Jim McKinney was one of several speakers. He emphasized how much the program helps the men.
"There is a group of people who believe we are supposed to punish them, we're supposed to lock them up in cells," McKinney said. "Then we're supposed to let them out again, and they go back into society with no tools and no ability to react to human beings."
This approach leads to many ex-convicts re-entering prison, he said.
"We've learned if you treat people with respect, start treating them like human beings, start sharing things with people, they turn their lives around.
"The national average is about 46 percent. Here in Fort Dodge, only 13 percent ever come back to prison," he said.
Of course, as Hatter explained, "The real goal of this is not just to have a dog and learn from a dog, the real goal is to provide a tool for a blind person who will get the dog."
Carroll Jackson had his dog, Hunter, lead him to the center of the gym so he could share with the inmates just how important that tool is to a blind person.
The dog can find the door for him, Jackson said. It can find the trash can, it can find an empty seat at a restaurant, it can find the up or the down escalator, and it can find a way through a crowded room without bumping into anything.
He thanked the inmates for all their hard work.
When he finally switched from using a white cane to a leader dog, "I kicked myself for not doing that 25 years earlier," he said. "The independence it gives you is absolutely amazing, to go places you've never been before."