Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter
From 25 May 2009 Issue
A New Leash on Life, Puppies Behind Bars
How We Got Started Puppies Behind Bars.org
In 1990, my husband and I adopted a Labrador Retriever from one of North America's most prestigious guide dog schools, Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. 'Arrow' had been on his way to becoming a guide dog but was released from the program for medical reasons. Upon adopting Arrow, I began reading about the special breeding and training that had gone into him and was amazed to discover how much time, effort, love, and money ($25,000) is behind each guide dog.
A large part of the extraordinary effort that goes into these special dogs comes from 'puppy raisers' -- individuals or families who take specially bred puppies into their homes when the pups are just eight weeks old and who spend the next sixteen months teaching them basic obedience skills and socializing them to enter the world at large. Socializing the dogs is actually the main component of a puppy raiser's task, for socialization is what helps these dogs become confident. Confidence is the most important trait for a working dog to have, but as it is not hereditary, it is the one trait which cannot be bred into dogs. Dogs become confident by being around human beings and by being introduced to a variety of situations at a measured pace. After twelve to eighteen months, PBB dogs leave their puppy raisers, return to the school from which they came, and are given a series of tests to determine their level of confidence. If they pass the tests, they go on to five or six months of professional training.
Dr. Thomas Lane, a veterinarian in Florida, thought that prison inmates would make excellent puppy raisers, and started the first guide-dog/prison program. Not only do inmates have unlimited time to spend with the puppies, but they benefit from the responsibility of being puppy raisers in ways that are especially important to their rehabilitation: they learn patience, what it is like to be completely responsible for a living being, how to give and receive unconditional love, and -- since puppy raisers take classes and train the dogs together -- how to work as a team.
After several months of research, I decided to leave my job on New York Mayor Giuliani's Youth Empowerment Services Commission and devote myself full-time to founding a non-profit organization dedicated to training prison inmates to raise puppies to be guide dogs for the blind. Puppies Behind Bars, Inc. formally came into existence in July 1997, and we initiated the program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in November 1997. We began with five puppies in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State's only maximum-security prison for women, and now work in six correctional facilities raising approximately 90 puppies.
PBB strives to meet the current needs of the communities in which we work and has expanded its goals accordingly. After the events of September 11, 2001, law enforcement agencies' need for working dogs increased dramatically. To help meet this demand, PBB added the training of explosive detection canines (EDCs) to its program. In 2006, PBB started raising dogs to assist disabled children and adults and launched Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us, through which we donate fully trained service dogs to wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The pups live in the cells with their primary raisers, go to classes administered by Puppies Behind Bars once a week, and are furloughed two or three weekends a month to 'puppy sitters' who take the dogs into their homes in order to expose them to things they won't experience in prison. These can be as simple as hearing doorbells or the sounds of a coffee grinder, and as complex as learning how to ride in a car and walk down a crowded sidewalk.
The puppies live in prison for sixteen months, after which they are tested to determine their suitability for training as service dogs for the disabled or explosive detection canines for law enforcement. If they are deemed suitable, Puppies Behind Bars returns them to the schools where they continue their formal training. If they do not continue on the track to become working dogs, Puppies Behind Bars donates them to families with blind children. In either case, these puppies, raised in such a unique environment, spend their lives as companions to people who need them.
After working with the puppy raisers and their puppies, I am proud of what is being accomplished. The inmates have taken tiny little creatures, who were not housebroken, did not know their names, and obeyed no commands, and have transformed them into well-behaved young pups who are a joy to be around. The raisers, too, have matured: the responsibility of raising a dog for a disabled person and the opportunity to give back to society are being taken very seriously. Puppy raisers show the pups tenderness and love, which had not been given expression before, and are deeply committed to supplying the solid foundations upon which guide dogs are made.
The puppies have affected the lives not only of their puppy raisers, but of virtually all the inmates and staff at the prison. It is literally impossible to walk a puppy around without being stopped by inmates who want to pet the dogs or who want to just say 'hi' to them, and I am constantly being approached by corrections officers and senior staff who ask me about the puppies' training. One of our particularly sensitive pups goes to several different areas of the prison: the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old inmates play with her; domestic violence classes use her to get the women to open up and talk; and she even visits inmates who are about to go before the parole board, for it has been found that her presence has a calming effect on the women.
Puppies Behind Bars is in need of funds to continue and expand our work. We pay 100% of all costs associated with raising puppies in prison, including dog supplies, educational supplies for the puppy raisers, teachers' salaries, and travel.
Gloria Gilbert Stoga
President Puppies Behind Bars, Inc.
Also visit Prison Dog Project at: http://www.pathwaystohope.org/prison.htm or visit our website and find information on Prison Dog Project. .
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