Thursday, July 23, 2009

Teaching old dogs new tricks: inmates train service dogs

What makes people do the things they do? What makes some people commit crimes, while others walk a straight and narrow path? How can we reform former law-breakers into law-abiding members of society?

To find the answers to my questions, I studied criminal justice and psychology in college. I was interested in the "human condition" and I wanted to find out as much as I could about what makes people behave a certain way. I focused a great deal on juveniles as well, trying to figure out what it takes to keep young people out of the criminal justice system and what could be done to help them find a place back in the community if they had already been part of the system.

Fast forward to a few things that I've learned:
  1. Children do not misbehave, they make mistakes.
    When very young children act out they need something (such as attention) that they can't ask for outright. When adolescents act out, they're also seeking attention or gratification that they can't find elsewhere. Even if they "know better" they're still just kids without fully-formed brains; adolescents do not have very good impulse control and need to be taught how to deal with their feelings and needs in a productive way.

  2. Nothing good can come from locking folks up and "throwing away the key."
    Very few offenders in the grand scheme find themselves behind bars forever. Because of this, our communities need to find a way to rehabilitate inmates so that they can rejoin society and become functional members of their communities. Teaching inmates about self-esteem along with technical skills will produce people who are ready to become part of the outside world again. Without this support and rehabilitation, many former inmates fall back into old patterns and wind up within the prison system once again.

  3. People are inherently good.
    There are plenty of people in this world that don't get along with one another, but all of them have some good somewhere. Many inmates are poor and are dealing with mental illness or addiction. By bringing out the good in them, finding them the proper treatment for whatever illness or addiction they are battling, we can also showcase the good in people, allowing inmates to reintegrate into society after they've served their time.
It is obvious that I am a firm believer in a rehabilitative form of justice. I believe that inmates should have access to counseling services, education, and spiritual guidance. I also believe that there are many programs (or potential programs) that can benefit both inmate and society. One such program that I've been seeing more and more of lately is Puppies Behind Bars (and similar programs).

Puppies Behind Bars.
Photo courtesy of Radhika Chalasani/Redux.

Puppies Behind Bars is the brainchild of Gloria Gilbert Stoga. After adopting a Labrador Retriever who was trained as a guide dog but discharged from the program for medical reasons, Stoga began researching the process of training a guide dog. It commonly costs $25,000 to train one dog, who then goes on to be a service animal for a blind, deaf, or physically handicapped owner or assists law enforcement as a drug- or explosives-sniffing dog. When a friend of Stoga's commented that prisoners might make good dog trainers, and idea was born.

Puppies Behind Bars operates in a handful of prisons across the country. Dogs have been trained by both men and women inmates, and there are successful programs for juvenile offenders as well. Puppies live in cells with their trainers and receive weekend furloughs to outside homes to experience life outside prison walls (to get used to traffic, doorbells, telephones, elevators, and the like). Trainers attend weekly classes and train their dogs in obedience as well as the special skills required to be a guide dog or law enforcement dog.

I support the programming of Puppies Behind Bars one hundred percent. Research shows that dogs have a calming, positive affect on people (inmates included). It also shows that the inmate trainers who work with these dogs finish the program with higher self esteem, more compassion for other people, better impulse control, and a drop in selfishness. They've also learned valuable skills that can help them when they reintegrate into society. These inmates can find work with animals, or -- with their new-found patience -- can train for other types of work.

In addition to benefits for the inmates, training dogs behind bars has advantages for the dogs and the community as well. For starters, the dogs involved in the program find themselves with devoted care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Prisoners do not have demands on their time the way those outside the system do. Even the most devoted dog trainers in the "outside" world have the distractions of spouses, cell phones, children, dentist appointments, and the like. In prison, dogs have access to their trainers -- and undivided attention -- 24 hours a day. The community benefits as well, since training a dog through a program like Puppies Behind Bars costs less than it does in the "real" world. More dogs can be trained less expensively, which means that more service animals are out in the community, assisting people who need them.

For more information on Puppies Behind Bars, you may visit them online at:

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