Our veterans are in need of service dogs, and the America’s VetDogs Program is rising up to the challenge by providing them with canines trained in prisons to help them lead normal lives.
In the Prison Puppy Program, the puppies, usually Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Lab/Golden mixes, receive a handler around the clock. Inmates feel immense fulfillment and pride in giving back to society while learning valuable dog training skills — not to mention spending time with an adorable companion.
America’s VetDogs’ Prison Puppy Program was launched by The Guide Dog Foundation, based in Smithtown, Long Island, with the hopes of enriching the lives of inmates and providing the puppies a chance to be great service dogs.
When the pups turn eight weeks old, they are sent to live with specially chosen inmates at participating correction facilities in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Florida. There are currently 90 puppies being raised at 11 correctional facilities; first preference is given to incarcerated veterans who were honorably discharged.
Puppies need to be exposed to a variety of situations at an early age, and a prison is an ideal location where the handler can devote all of his time to the dog. Pups spend weekdays with their designated handlers, sharing their cells and learning housebreaking, crate training, and basic obedience.
They are also taught how to turn on lights, open doors, and retrieve dropped items. They follow their handlers everywhere, attending classes, observing recreational activities, and going to meals. Once a week, an America’s VetDogs instructor travels to the facility to provide instruction to fit the Guide Dog Foundation’s curriculum.
On the weekends, volunteer puppy raisers take the dogs into the real world, where they can experience busy streets, stores, car rides, and a home environment. They are also exposed to restaurants, libraries, other animals, and children to prepare them for life after training. The program relies heavily on the weekend raisers, and those who work full-time have an opportunity to participate.
Erin Sullivan, a resident of Massachusetts whose brother is a veteran, has raised three puppies for the program. Sullivan told PupJournal,
“I’m honored to be doing something that benefits such a humble group of men and women. My weekends might be more carefully planned out than the average person’s, but I have an adorable sidekick who makes me and others smile, and who helps me have thoughtful and wonderful conversations with people about veterans, PTSD, our prison systems, and how fulfilling volunteering can be.”
The dogs spend their time in prisons until they are about 16 months old, and proceed to receive advanced training at the Guide Dog Foundation. They are then matched with the right veterans to suit their specific needs.
Since 2003, VetDogs has placed more than 400 assistance dogs with disabled veterans, free of charge. Currently, there are more than 150 service dogs in the field providing mobility and independence to veterans, active-duty service members, and first responders with disabilities.
VetDogs also places guide dogs with individuals who are blind or have low vision; hearing dogs for those who have lost their hearing later in life; and facility dogs, as part of the rehabilitation process in military and VA hospitals. Whether they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, have vision impairments, or physical disabilities, our veterans are paired with the ideal dog to meet their needs and lifestyle.
The highly trained dogs assist veterans with their daily activities, and provide companionship and emotional support. In some cases, they are trained to wake them up during night terrors, and get help when their person is having a seizure. They also help with retrieving dropped items, opening refrigerators, turning on and off lights, and pushing handicapped door buttons.
The correctional facilities where puppies spend their time are a lot more peaceful and have a sense of normalcy; the veterans benefit because they are getting highly trained dogs from the prison program.
Andrew Rubenstein from the Guide Dog Foundation told PupJournal, “It is reported to us by all the prison leadership that having the dogs inside the walls has made the prison more calm, the inmates more responsive and compliant, and the atmosphere is more easygoing.”
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The VetDogs program is currently in the process of starting the program at two new prisons in Shirley, Massachusetts, and Dallas, Pennsylvania that will each receive 20 dogs. The Guide Dog Foundation is seeking weekend puppy raisers in these areas to assist.
Dogs are incredible beings capable of doing amazing things and, with the right environment and training, they can truly change lives. The service dogs of the Guide Dog Foundation’s VetDogs Program are making the lives of those who served our country so much easier, and we hope the program continues to grow and affect more change.
To learn more about the program, visit vetdogs.org and guidedog.org.
Header images via America’s VetDogs