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A New Leash on Life

We walk along a pathway next to the building where we can see inside some classrooms. We pass the culinary arts/home economics room, which is closed today. When it’s open, the puppy trainers sew dog beds, braid colorful rope toys and bake all-natural dog biscuits that are sold on the outside. The York puppy program, like most of the programs across the country, is funded by private donations and grants, and, sometimes, sales of various products.

Inside the classroom—a large space with rows of computers and work samples plastered on every available wall—students finds their places and settle in. Each trainer places a blanket underneath or near her desk for her dog to lie upon. Arby chews a bone on his Batman blanket. Beneath Barbara’s desk, Riley, three-and-a-half-months old, snuggles up against Danny for a nap. Tracey, a young African American woman and one of the program’s senior trainers, lets her dog Brooklyn choose a spot just behind her chair; he lies there on his back, paws skyward.

Once settled, the women work independently on various projects. They are learning computer skills, training for competency in Microsoft Word and Excel and desktop publishing. With the help of her fellow trainers, Tracey created a 2003 calendar that featured the program’s dogs, some of whom were dressed in costumes.

“I’m going to take what I’ve learned and put it to use on the outside,” says Tracey, who wants to go back to school to study computer science once she’s released in October, 2003. She also hopes to work with therapy dogs, taking them into hospitals and nursing homes to visit patients.

As I stand back and watch the inmates at their desks, Ellen tells me that she believes that the majority of inmates are motivated to better themselves; there are long waiting lists to get into classes like this one, and the puppy program. She also says that Tracey and Barbara have been “huge assets” to her. She points to Deborah and remarks on how much she’s changed since joining the program—she’s really “come out of her shell,” Ellen notes.

“It’s worthwhile,” she says of the program. “It’s the best part of my job.”

You can see just how worthwhile in the smiles on the inmates’ faces and in their exemplary behavior. Suddenly they’ve been given a second chance—an opportunity to put someone else first, to give something back—and hope that they can one day be productive members of society. The proof is also in the nearly one dozen dogs that have graduated from this program and gone on to successful assistance-dog careers. Not every dog makes it, though. According to NEADS, about 30 percent of all dogs trained can’t function as intended, for a variety of reasons. At York, if a dog doesn’t make it—and a few haven’t mostly for medical reasons—the dog is donated to a terminally ill child.

The inmates themselves are outperforming the norm as well. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average recidivism rate is about 67 percent. However, not one of the eight inmates who participated in the York puppy program and were released has re-offended.

The York program’s success isn’t an anomaly. At the Washington Correctional Center for Women, program assistant Betty Devereux says that in 22 years, not one inmate who has graduated from the program has re-offended.

“We’re real proud of that zero,” says Devereux, whose program has rescued, trained and placed more than 750 service, therapy and companion dogs.

For Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who in 1997 founded Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), a New York-based program that has dogs in five maximum-security prisons, the results are harder to quantify. Most of her inmate-trainers have not been released because they are serving long sentences. But, she says, of those who have been released, some stay in contact with, even volunteer for, PBB and are doing extraordinarily well on the outside.

The dogs’ success is unequivocal. Of the 112 guide dogs PBB has raised in prison, 32 are currently working as guide dogs for the blind or as explosive detection canines, another 51 are currently in prison or in professional training; only 17 haven’t made it.

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