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Canine Delivered Valentines
Prison trained service dogs raise money for their organization this February.
I don't care about Valentine's Day flowers, but this delivery from Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN) is one I'd like to get!

This week, a group of service dogs in training delivered almost 650 Valentine's Day gift boxes throughout Indianapolis as part of Puppy Love Valentine 2017, an annual fundraiser for ICAN, a local service dog organization. ICAN trains pups in three area prisons to help people with disabilities like PTSD and autism.

The dogs arrived with gift boxes that included goodies such as cookies, canine designed artwork, candles, scarves, and greeting dogs featuring the ICAN service pups. Many of the items are made by the prison inmates. This year, Pendleton Correctional Facility's culinary arts program baked cookies in the shape of paw prints, while others made heart-shaped candle holders. The inmates involved in the service dog program also helped the pups create the artwork, which involves having the dogs step in paint and touch the canvas with their paws, noses and tails.

Puppy Love Valentine 2017 raised more than $30,000 for the organization.

Valentine's Day marks an important date for ICAN. The organization began working with local inmates on that holiday in 2002. ICAN founder, Dr. Sally Irvin, saw the program as an opportunity to rehabilitate inmates while providing training to the dogs. They began at juvenile detention facilities, but because of high turnover, ICAN shifted to maximum security prisons because the inmates are there longer, providing more stability for the pups. Now ICAN has about 50 dogs in training at any given time across the three prisons they work with.

“What we challenge everybody here on is that the easiest and most positive way to turn something around is to give back,” said Pendleton Correctional Facility Assistant Superintendent of Reentry Andrew Cole. “To know that these dogs, after all your hard work, are going to help somebody for the rest of that dog’s life, it’s an amazing thing.”

Training the dogs gives inmates a sense of freedom and purpose, while also developing a new skill.

The inmates go through a rigorous interview process to participate, ultimately earning credits for an animal trainer apprenticeship. Out of 1,750 inmates, a group of 15 dog handlers and six alternates are involved in the program. The pups in training live with their trainers in a special housing unit, spending 24/7 together. ICAN staff comes to the prison weekly for a formal training session.

“We serve two under-served populations, prisoners and the people with disabilities who the dogs will serve," says ICAN Director of Development and Outreach Denise Sierp. “It’s the dogs that bridge it all together.”

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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