Of Canines and Convicts

A one-woman army and a handful of unwanted dogs may be the best hope of rehabilitation for Colorado's ever-growing prison population.

April 2008

It's midmorning on a Wednesday, and Robert Gerle is working with Freya, a four-month old Lab-Great Dane mix. It's a cold winter day, but Gerle is committed to the training, to making sure that Freya has the skills to stay in her "forever home," as people in the rescue business call it. "She's a knucklehead, but I love her," he says.

But Freya is different from any of the 22 dogs he's trained. Freya is his, a Christmas gift from his wife, and Wednesday is his day off. His home is hers forever, and as she wriggles between his legs for a back scratch, she's his daily reminder of how far he has come.

Gerle paroled to a halfway house in November 2006. After a brief stint as a trainer at PetSmart, he's now a client-services representative at the Animal Hospital Center, a specialty emergency veterinary hospital in Highlands Ranch. He does training on the side, just like Stevens used to. With luck and hard work, one day he'll do it for a living.

Parole is no picnic, even when you get six months in a halfway house like Gerle. He's classified as an intensive-supervision parolee—the kind of offender not likely to be a candidate for release without the extra scrutiny. He calls his parole officer every morning to check in. There's a 10 p.m. curfew. He wears an electronic tracking device, takes roughly three random drug and alcohol tests a month, and must attend weekly counseling sessions on top of visits from his parole officer (counseling he pays for). On top of that, he's responsible for keeping his own house and all the mundane but essential things—laundry, bills—that go with it. But he's outside, with his wife and son and stepdaughter. And Freya, of course. If it weren't for the dog program, he'd probably still be in prison; his mandatory release date isn't until August 4, 2015.

When he went to prison, Gerle says, he was still a kid, really. "I was a grown man physically, but my maturity was stunted before prison, and severely crippled inside," he says. "I don't think I really grew up much until I got into the dog program. When you're entirely responsible for another living being," he says quietly, "when every minute of every day revolves around this breathing, thinking, sentient creature, it gives you a profound sense of how deeply you can impact someone."

Joe Lindsey contributes frequently to 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].

Click here to view a slideshow of convicts with their.