A New Leash on Life

Prison dog-training programs have a powerful impact on inmates, dogs and people with disabilities.
By Fern Glazer, August 2009

It’s a Tuesday morning. Inside Thompson Hall, in a colorfully decorated basement-level room, a small group of women, each with a Labrador Retriever puppy at her side, sit in a circle. Barbara, a matronly woman with short brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses stands and commands her 16-month-old yellow Lab, Danny, to sit and stay. She then walks out of the circle into an adjacent area set up like an apartment and closes the baby gate behind her. She lies down on the floor as though injured and calls out: “Help! Danny! Help!”

Danny’s ears prick up and within seconds, he springs into action. Running toward the sound, he dives over the gate to Barbara’s side. With an urgent tone to her voice, she tells him to get the phone. Danny finds the phone on a table, picks it up with his mouth and obediently drops it into Barbara’s hand. A chorus of cheers rings out and Danny is lovingly praised for a job well done.

This is a typical scene at weekly meetings of this group, members of which are training assistance dogs for people who are deaf or have physical disabilities. But there is nothing typical about the trainers: They are all inmates at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut.

The meeting breaks up around noon and the women and their canine companions head upstairs to the dormitory-style cells: 6-by-12-foot cinder-block rooms with a window and just enough space for a cot-like bed, a stainless-steel toilet and a dog crate. The only bars are plastic, part of baby gates meant to keep the dogs inside.

Eight times a day, inmates must be in their rooms to be counted by corrections officers. “Count” gives the inmates and their dogs a few minutes to relax after a long morning of regimented training. Leashes and other gear are removed and stuffed toys—of which there are a plethora—are tossed about. The puppies lick their trainers and wag their tails furiously, happy to be home. When the corrections officer shouts the end of count, the dogs immediately go to the door—they too know that this signals the time to go outside.

This three-year-old program is called the Prison PUP Partnership and is run in conjunction with National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS). A nonprofit organization, NEADS has been training dogs to assist people who are deaf, hearing impaired or physically disabled since 1976; and since 1998, they’ve been placing puppies with inmates in various correctional facilities.

The prison program’s goal is to speed up the training process for assistance dogs. According to Assistance Dog International, a coalition of programs providing support to people with disabilities, the average wait for an assistance dog is two years. Volunteers typically take a pup into their home for 16 months, exposing them to a variety of people, places and sounds. Following this socialization period, the pups spend five months in professional assistance-dog training at NEADS headquarters in Princeton, Massachusetts.

Because the dogs in the prison program live with the inmates 24/7, the inmates are able to focus on the dogs and do advanced training in the same timeframe, which reduces the time spent on professional training by several months. In addition to producing assistance dogs more quickly, the program has also had a dramatic impact on the inmates and even the corrections staff.

While recruiting inmates to train assistance dogs may seem unusual, such programs have been around for some time. Many believe the first program of this type was founded in 1981 by Sister Pauline Quinn at Washington Correctional Center for Women; that program is still in existence today (although no longer run by Quinn). Since then, dozens of “prison pup” programs like it have cropped up in both male and female facilities around the country, and more are started each year. NEADS, which collaborates with a total of five prisons in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut, first began its puppy program at Quinn’s urging.

These women, who have committed crimes such as driving while intoxicated, larceny, manslaughter, even murder, don’t look like criminals. Their prison-issue uniforms—denim cargo pants, burgundy t-shirt, gray sweatshirt—could easily be mistaken for street clothes. And as they train or play with their feisty puppies, they seem just like you and me. The prominent yellow identification tag clipped at the chest and the plastic identification bracelet on a wrist, however, mark their status.

York Correctional is a unique state facility. The 425-acre campus comprises both maximum- and minimum-security facilities for male and female inmates. Maximum-security inmates can, through good behavior, earn the privilege of moving to minimum-security, where there are fewer restrictions and fewer blatant reminders that this is a prison—no heavily barred doors or windows, for example. The campus has lots of big, beautiful trees, and there’s even a large lake where the puppy trainers take their dogs swimming on hot summer days.

But not just any minimum-security inmate can become a puppy trainer. At York, inmates must first undergo a rigorous screening process that demands that they have a clean discipline record at the facility, a high level of maturity and motivation, and at least 18 months left on their sentence (the maximum time it takes to complete the dog’s training.

“They’re really careful about the inmates they choose,” says Paula Ricard, NEADS Puppy Program Coordinator. “And because we’re … in there once a week, we’re keeping a close eye on the relationship between the dog and the trainer. If we had any reservations we’d do something about it. But I’ve not had any problems. Ever.”

One Tuesday I visit York and spend the day with the trainers, their dogs and Ellen Hurlburt, the corrections supervisor in charge of the puppy program. I’m amazed at how obedient the pups are and how many advanced tasks they can perform: pulling wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, and opening doors. But what surprises me are the candid comments the inmates share after their morning training session.

“She’s a great listener. That’s something I never had in life,” says Heather, an outgoing young woman with a wiry red bob, of her dog Bella. “And I’m giving back to the community; I’ve never done that.”

“There are times when I don’t want to do this anymore. But when you see the end result, it’s worth it, even if it’s frustrating,” says Lisa, a thirty-something Hispanic woman, of her black Lab, Perkins.

Deborah, a soft-spoken sandy blonde who’s training Arby, the program’s first rescue dog, has difficulty holding back tears as she speaks about her experience: “I suffer from severe depression. [Arby] gives me a reason to get up in the morning. He’s a rescue, but he rescues me everyday.”

In the afternoon, I follow a group of inmate-trainers to school. We head to the maximum maximum-security side of the facility, where classes are held. Along the way we pass small groups of other inmates. Some barely notice of the dogs, but others light up, smiling and saying hello in child-like voices.    

As we pass through a metal detector and a large steel door closes behind us, Ellen explains that touching is forbidden in prison. Even though it’s a safety precaution meant to curb harassment and violence, living every day without being touched is hard to imagine—no handshake hello, no arm on the shoulder of a friend, no hug after a hard day. But inmates with dogs have a unique opportunity—they have a friend who will unconditionally love and support them and whom they can hug and kiss to their heart’s content.

“We know from research that the presence of an animal has a healing effect,” says Maryellen Elcock, vice president of programming at the Delta Society, a nonprofit whose primary goal is to improve human health through animals. Among the many proven positive effects Elcock cites are lower blood pressure and stress levels, a decrease in loneliness and an increase in self-esteem, all of which inmates are likely to need—in spades.

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.

The inmate-impact results are tempered by the fact that the selection process focuses on inmates with good behavior and a high level of motivation and maturity. Recent studies, such as one conducted by the Correctional Education System, indicate that simply participating in any educational program “reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent.”

Elaine Lord, superintendent at Bedford Hills Correctional in up-state New York, one of the PBB prisons, couldn’t agree more. “An inmate who participates meaningfully in a program does better. It doesn’t matter what the program is.”

Back at Thompson Hall, several inmates whose work duties were cancelled spend the time alone reading or watching TV. Lisa takes her dog Perkins out for a quick run in the adjacent exercise yard, which is also used by the rest of the prison’s 90 inmates for exercise; inside the fence topped with barbed wire is a volleyball net and picnic table. The dogs can run here, and, in one corner, do their business. Lisa throws an oversized baseball for Perkins, who chases it with abandon. She jumps on the ball as if attacking prey and then wiggles her butt, which makes Lisa laugh out loud. Several inmates peek out their first-floor room windows, faces pressed against the glass, watching and smiling. When Perkins brings the ball, Lisa bends down and asks for kisses. Perkins stretches up and licks her face excitedly. In a few months, Perkins will leave Lisa and move onto professional training and later, will give a person with a disability some much-needed independence. Lisa, mother of three who has been at York for a decade, will be up for parole again soon. She just might get her independence, too.

Fern Glazer writes about arts, culture, and lifestyle for publications such Time Out New York, Museums Magazines, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.