The Puppies Behind Bars program, started by Gloria Gilbert Stoga in 1997, began at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State. Since its inception, it has branched out to include five more correctional facilities in the Northeast. While the Puppies Behind Bars program is probably the most famous of its type (largely thanks to Oprah), there are other programs throughout the country that are similar in nature.
Dr. Thomas Lane, a veterinarian in Florida, started the first guide dog/prison program in 1990. Since then, several other programs have developed in which guide dogs, explosive detection dogs, and therapy dogs are trained at various prisons across the country.
A recent article in the New York Times discussed how dogs that are trained within prison guide dog programs are being used for the treatment of PTSD in returning war veterans. These dogs, known as psychiatric service dogs, have helped dozens of veterans significantly reduce their PTSD symptoms.
Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us was established by Puppies Behind Bars to provide service dogs to veterans returning home from Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) who have suffered a physical injury, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or exhibit Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Amazingly, “The dogs are trained to jolt a soldier from a flashback, dial 911 on a phone and even sense a panic attack before it starts. And, perhaps most important, the veterans’ sense of responsibility, optimism and self-awareness is renewed by caring for the dogs.”
These guide dogs not only assist the disabled, or troubled, person who receives the dog, but also the person who trains the dog. While each prison determines the guidelines for inmate inclusion into the program, each has high standards to enter and remain active as a puppy trainer. Although the work is intense: puppy training classes, homework, and tests, the rewards of raising and training a dog are worth it for most of the inmates.
Some inmates credit the program with turning their lives around. The unconditional love and acceptance given to them by their dog is something that many of the inmates have never experienced in their lives; in turn, they learn how to put the needs of another being ahead of their own. Most inmates acknowledge that the hardest part of the program is saying goodbye to their dog. The dog typically stays with the inmate for two years before it goes on for final training and on to a life of service, but the impact the dog has on the inmate is life long.
Having personally visited, and worked at, correctional facilities with the Puppies Behind Bars program I can say that at first, seeing dogs at a prison is a bit strange. However, even in observing the program briefly one can see the benefits. Not only do the dogs benefit from the constant one-on-one support, but seeing the inmates with a feeling of purpose and pride in their work makes it feel as though real rehabilitation and treatment is occurring, something that benefits everyone involved, and society at large.