A prison yard is not where Nancy LaFontaine expected to find herself, but she says she feels a sense of pride when she's surrounded by inmates and their dogs.
As head dog trainer for the Paws for a Cause program, LaFontaine pairs inmates at Sussex Correctional Institution with dogs from Delaware SPCA in Georgetown.
LaFontaine says working in the prison is her biggest accomplishment.
The Lewes resident established K-10 Dog Training five years ago. Standing in the sun-filled courtyard at SCI, LaFontaine calmly asserts dominance over the shelter dogs, using simple commands and a steady voice.
When the dogs first arrived at the prison, they jumped on the inmates, ran around the yard and chased other dogs. LaFontaine said the dogs were unfocused and unable to take commands.
After hours of work with the inmates and the dogs, LaFontaine is able to have the dogs perform simple commands like sit and stay.
"They are really doing awesome," LaFontaine said. "The inmates work really hard, and we are getting the dogs to take the leadership, respond to their names and find focus. If the dog is not focused, you won't get results."
The goal of the Paws program is to find homes for shelter dogs. LaFontaine said shelter dogs often start out with behavior issues, but two have already been trained and found homes.
The second round, which began last month, brought in more dogs and new teams of inmates to care for them. Initiated by SCI Deputy Warden Linda Valentino, the program could be expanded to other Delaware prisons.
For dogs that have never been trained, training can be a power struggle, LaFontaine said. Working outside for hours with one dog at SCI, she said humans have to earn trust, but also show compassion.
"I'm always tweaking the way I do things," she said. "One method might work for one dog, but it doesn't mean it will work for another dog.
"I love what I do," said LaFontaine. "Being a part of the SCI program has really allowed me to expand the positive approach I use with dogs. Since it's a pilot program, we have to make sure we are successful."
As a certified dog trainer, LaFontaine began working with clients who needed help with their dogs. She also became a Canine Good Citizen evaluator through the American Kennel Club. This allowed her to certify dogs at the end of a program as good citizens.
She also helps others become dog trainers and now mentors two women who are interested in the career.
"I am basically training my own competition," she says with a chuckle. "But I don't mind."
She does it because she loves her job, and she wants others to find a way to fulfill their dreams as well.
"My goal is to help everyone I can," LaFontaine said.
Her love of dogs and her personal experience training her own shelter dogs led her to enroll in school to become a dog trainer. A few weeks before graduation, the economy went sour, and LaFontaine found herself out of work.
"It was actually good timing because it allowed me to focus fully on my dog training," LaFontaine said.
LaFontaine married her husband, Larry, in 1982. The couple spent their early years outside Washington, D.C., in Silver Spring, Md. They moved to Lewes more than a decade ago to enjoy the coastal atmosphere with their son, and LaFontaine worked as a secretary.
When her son graduated from Sussex Technical High School, she knew she had to consider her own future, and she took steps to fulfill a longtime ambition and become a dog trainer.
"In my heart I knew I didn't belong behind a desk," LaFontaine said.
To say that dogs are her life is an understatement. Instead of taking vacations, the couple stay home and work on the business. They write up various methods for socializing dogs and develop new outlets for training classes.
Her upbeat personality is tinged with steadfastness and a steely persistence bubbling just under the surface. Her business is growing because her clients are happy with the results they see in the dogs.
"The business runs mostly on referrals," LaFontaine said. Former clients send new clients, and she works closely with kennels in Millsboro, Lewes and Harrington, where she hosts basic training classes. Concord Pet Foods and Supplies in Rehoboth also refers customers to LaFontaine.
In the future, she wants to open her own facility with an agility course and space to train more dogs.
"If we can turn around shelter dogs at SCI, then there are other dogs we can help," LaFontaine said. "We can fuel more adoptions and prevent dogs from being euthanized."
LaFontaine imagines a facility where everyone is welcome to watch or participate in classes. It's all focused on making dogs better citizens.
"In Delaware, you can take dogs just about anywhere, so it's good to know that your dog will behave and be a good citizen in public," she said. "I always strive for dogs in the training to complete canine good citizenship because then they have the confidence to go anywhere."
LaFontaine is able to evaluate and train dogs to complete good citizenship training. At the end of the training, as well as with her other classes, owners receive a certificate or diploma showing the dog's achievements.
In the future, she hopes to become a certified professional dog trainer, but until then she plans to enjoy every moment with the dogs she trains.
"It's really been a dream," she said. "This is what I wanted to do, and it got me out from behind a desk."
LaFontaine can be reached at 302-236-2497 or by visiting www.k10training.com.