Although it’s not exactly job training, a program that pairs puppies with prisoner handlers teaches responsibility, patience and commitment, skills needed for future employment. And the experience may eventually lead some inmates to jobs working with animals.
The program, operated by Santa Rosa, Calif.-headquartered Canine Companions for Independence, began 13 years ago at the Coffee Creek Correctional Center in Wilsonville, Oregon. It now operates in 12 federal, state and local facilities located in 11 states across the nation. Inmates train puppies to be service dogs for people with disabilities. Currently 95 puppies are being raised in the correctional institutions participating in the program.
Each facility recruits a puppy class trainer, often a volunteer. That person chooses the prisoner participants, who go through a rigorous selection process to make sure they can handle the commitment.
The puppies’ training begins with a puppy starter, a volunteer from the community, who takes the dogs from the age of two to four months to get them potty trained. These volunteers work with the same puppies once they enter the prison system, taking them outside to expose them to the type of public settings – streets, stores, other animals, noise and children – that they wouldn’t experience in a prison setting.
But the remaining time is spent with the inmates. The puppies accompany them on their daily routines, from work assignments to meals and whatever else is on the schedule. The puppy class trainer conducts daily or weekly classes, depending on the facility, to teach the participants how to handle their charges, and the inmates are given time each day to practice the commands they learn.
Veterinarians recruited from the community give the dogs their shots and any medical care they might need. The puppies remain in the prisons until they’re one-and-one-half years old, when they are given to the closest Canine Companions for Independence regional training center for advanced training. The inmates have a graduation ceremony.
Since the program began, 412 puppies have been trained. Of that number, 180 of those have gone on to become service dogs, a rate similar to that of dogs raised in private homes.
The program has not only been a success for the canine companions but even more so for the prisons and inmates who have worked with them. Prison officials report a reduction in stress levels after the program is introduced, and the prisoners themselves find it helps in their rehabilitation.
As Sharon, an inmate who served seven-and-a-half years for robbery, said at a CCI graduation ceremony following her release from prison, “Being a puppy raiser was a self-esteem builder for me and kept me from becoming hard-hearted. I learned discipline, how to put something ahead of myself, and finally, I took responsibility for my actions.”
Volunteers or prison officials who might want to start a CCI program in their own facility can find more information on the program at www.cci.org.