Service and assistance dogs have never been so popular. "With so many veterans returning from overseas, and a greater understanding of what these dogs can do to help people, the need is growing," confirms Carl Rotans, head dog trainer at New York City-based Puppies Behind Bars.
The non-profit organization, launched in 1997, trains inmates to raise puppies to become service dogs for the disabled, serving people with spinal chord injuries to soldiers returning home with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other dogs are trained for explosive detection for law enforcement agencies. Puppies are specifically bred for the program and train with inmates at six correctional facilities in three states. Currently, 75 puppies are learning the ropes, including 65 Labrador Retrievers and 10 Golden Retrievers.
The program begins by matching each 8-week-old puppy with an inmate trainer. Male and female inmates have proved equally proficient. Some are incarcerated for white-collar crimes, many more for homicide.
"Of course, we carefully screen. We want people who say they will commit to this two-year program," says Rotans. "We look for people who have taken responsibility for their past deeds and want to better their lives."
The trainers follow a specific, regimented curriculum. In their first weeks, pups learn their names and are house trained. As time goes on, they learn much more. Over two years, they are taught more than 80 commands.
To learn how to work with the pups, inmates are coached by trainers from Puppies Behind Bars. To do that, the PBB trainers must go behind bars themselves.
"I've been here for 9 years," says Rotans. "At first, when that gate slams behind you, it's pretty unnerving. I had never been to a jail before. But you learn these are people, too, and that the inmates we work with were generally young when they made bad choices; it doesn't mean they're bad people. Everyone deserves a second chance."
In fact, the opportunity to complete a task and see results can be life-changing. Inmates who complete the 2-year program with a puppy may go on to mentor other trainers. A few have even continued to work with dogs on the outside.
At 19, Geraldine Hardwick, of New York, began serving a sentence for homicide at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Today, after raising six puppies, she's a dog trainer and administrative assistant at Puppies Behind Bars.
"I loved raising the puppies," Hardwick says. While still in prison, Hardwick took a correspondence course to learn more about dog training.
Nora Moran is also a dog trainer and administrative assistant for Puppies Behind Bars. She was jailed at 17 for armed robbery at Bedford Hills.
"What you put into the puppies is a reflection back to you about who you are. If you want that reflection to be positive, you have to treat the puppy positively," says Moran. She raised five puppies in prison.
No matter how gifted the prisoners are as trainers, they can't do it all. Socialization of service dogs requires desensitizing the animals to anything they'll encounter. While inmates do have time, they can't expose puppies to restaurants and busy carnivals - or even things like carpeting, usually absent in prisons.
That's where an army of 200 volunteer puppy sitters come in. They travel to correctional facilities and take the pups out for real world exposure throughout their training. "This is critical," says Rotans, "Since service dogs must be socialized to all the places people with disabilities might go to, and also be able to follow commands at all these places and under all kinds of circumstances."
After training, the pups are carefully paired with those who need them, based on temperament.
"A person who lost their arms or who has a neuromuscular disease might be placed with a dog who's really especially good at turning off and on lights, taking dishes off the table and putting them into the sink, and making the bed," says Rotans. "An ex-soldier with PTSD but with an active lifestyle doesn't need a dog who can do any of that, but rather a more active dog. Among other things, PTSD dogs are needed to sit in reverse, looking behind their person, so the dog literally watches their backs."
While Rotans says puppy trainers feel a sense of loss after giving up their charges, as former inmate Hardwick says, "There's also a sense of accomplishment, and seeing a challenge through -- and you know you're giving back to the community."
Puppies Behind Bars changes lives -- of those in-need who benefit from the trained dogs, as well as those who train the animals.
"These dogs are a gift of love," says Rotans. Learn more at www.puppiesbehindbars.com.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.