Prison Puppy Program
Four state correctional institutions in Massachusetts, four in Maryland, one in Connecticut and one in Florida are home to America’s VetDogs Prison Puppy Programs. In this special program, inmates are raising and training puppies who will one day work as service dogs for wounded veterans. In many facilities, incarcerated veterans are participating in the program giving them an emotional connection to their dog’s future handler and partner.
In order to be selected as dog handlers, inmates are required to submit a letter of intent to a liaison, after which a team of social workers, case managers, psychology, custody and program staff become involved in the selection process. Inmates who are honorably discharged veterans are given preference to become raisers, but all candidates must have acceptable behavioral records while they have been incarcerated and first must pass a screening of the prison intelligence department.
Puppies are transported to the prisons at 8-9 weeks old in groups of 3 - 4. A primary and secondary handler is then paired to work with each puppy. Puppies live in the handler’s cell and house-breaking, crate training, and basic puppy skills are started immediately. The vast majority of each pup’s day is spent outside the cell, attending classes, programs, observing recreational activities and going to meals in the chow hall along with their handlers. An America’s VetDogs instructor travels to each prison facility once a week providing instructing on how to train the dogs during a two hour class.
Handlers not only teach basic obedience but service dog tasks as well, such as retrieving dropped items, tugging doors open, pushing handicapped door buttons, and providing brace and balance on stairs. Socialization, puppy development, behavior theory, animal husbandry, grooming, and first aid are all part of the VetDogs curriculum as well. A typical class is broken down into a brief question and answer period, a lecture, a demonstration by each handler of the dog’s skills and finally a period of group training. Individual advice is given to each handler for skill advancement along with a training plan for the following week.
America’s VetDogs instructors have special permission to bring socialization items into the prison such as strange hats, umbrellas, skateboards and battery operated toys into the prison so that the puppies get properly socialized to things out in the “real world” and don’t become institutionalized. Each weekend, puppies go home with a volunteer, some of whom are prison staff. These “weekend puppy raisers” teach house manners, socialize them to car rides, traffic noise and visit stores, restaurants and hospitals so that they will be confident wherever their future veteran partner will go.
When puppies reach adulthood and the instructor feels they are mature enough, the dogs then go back to America's VetDogs for assessment, final training and client matching. Statistics have shown that prison raised dogs are usually so skilled they are able to go through the final training process in half the normal time of a home raised dog.
Prison puppy programs are truly a win-win situation for everyone involved:
- America's VetDogs wins because with the help of the inmate handlers, more assistance dogs can be placed with disabled veterans
- The disabled veteran wins as some of the most skilled service dogs come out of the prison puppy programs
- The inmate wins because he is able to give back to society, to make the life of a 'brother' or 'sister' veteran better, as well as learning how to train service dogs, a valuable life skill
- The Correctional facilities win because the puppies create a calmer climate and bring a sense of normalcy to the environment
- And the puppy wins because assistance dogs raised and trained in prison are place more quickly and spend less time in America's VetDogs' kennel
All of the prisons have reported a “calmer” climate and a sense of normalcy to the facility since the first puppies arrived.
Are you interested in becoming a weekend puppy raiser? If you live in or close to Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, or Virginia and are interested in our Weekend Puppy Raising program, please click the link below: