Have you heard of dogs going to prison? No, not a dog pound or a shelter for homeless pets, but living in a real prison?
Well, I hadn’t but learned of a heartwarming program that helps at least a trio of creatures: two or more people and one dog.
At a number of medium to high security prisons where some inmates are doing life sentences, some are involved in a program that rescues young puppies who might otherwise be euthanized. Inmates spend a year teaching a dog how to follow the commands of their eventual blind owner.
Leader Dogs for the Blind, a program of Lions International (my husband and I belong to a local Lions Club), provides training for these service dogs. There are many individuals involved in this training. Not all breeds of dogs are suitable and the program works carefully to make sure the service dogs have the right personalities for the job.
After the dogs are trained by the inmates, they are donated to sight-impaired individuals who continue training the dogs as they live with and love these loyal canines. They must develop absolute confidence that the dog will guide and protect them even crossing busy streets in city traffic. The dogs enable those with sight issues to pursue education, jobs, and family life.
Can those who are serving time be trusted for this job? Do they and the dog succeed? Yes and yes. The inmates have been very successful in training the dogs — carefully guided — partly because they can work with them all day in their cells or outdoors and have them basically 24 hours a day. In one video on YouTube, you can see an inmate telling the dog to stay behind a line at the door of their cell, and the dog stays. The dog doesn’t know it is a prison, it is just his/her home. Leaders say the inmates enjoy feeling useful and being a contributing member of society — even if currently imprisoned.
Jim McKinney, warden at an Iowa prison wanted the program for their facility. Some were at first uncertain that it would work. But McKinney says that when they first brought in puppies, some inmates responded in excited little kid voices: “Oh look, a puppy!” Seeing that, McKinney felt there wouldn’t be a problem getting inmates to participate. “Prison-raised dogs are more likely to successfully become a Leader Dog than those trained in a home setting,” noted McKinney. There were about 90 puppies in the program in their facility at the time a video “Leader Dogs for the Blind Puppy Raising Program” was made.
The sad part is saying goodbye to the dog when the training time is complete. But that is part of the bargain. The prisoners get a puppy and begin the dog’s training from day one, and many of the inmates come to feel totally attached to the dog. But they know that the dog will go on to help a person who cannot see — who will have a less difficult life as a visually impaired person.
After dogs have been trained, in the Lions’ program, sight-impaired persons at least 16 years old (no upper age limitation) go to a facility in Michigan and meet and work with a dog for 26 days to bond and learn commands. If things work out, they take the dog home and continue honing their relationship and leading/following roles. The program is free for the recipients.
The good news is that very few of those who’ve trained dogs end up going back to prison themselves. I was delighted to learn there are many other “dogs in prison” programs, and not just training dogs to guide the blind. One report said there are 290 prisons across all 50 states that have implemented dog programs. In 2017, Kevin Earl, from University of New Haven researched the trend. He notes thatdog-training programs in prisons are “working toward goals related to recidivism.” (Recidivism is the rate at which people end up returning to prison after being rehabilitated and released.) There are waiting list of inmates who want a dog — those hoping to do something better with their life.
The inmates, the service dogs, and the people they help get a second chance at life.
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Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.