By: Brent Greenberg
The service dog programs of America’s VetDogs® were created to provide enhanced mobility and renewed independence to veterans, active-duty service members, and first responders with disabilities, allowing them to once again live with pride and self-reliance. America’s VetDogs® has then created a unique program to help train the next generation of service dogs for American veterans. The Prison Puppy Program has prison inmates raise and train puppies who will one day work as service dogs for wounded veterans.
From Maine to Florida, correctional facilities are home to these Prison Puppy Programs. In many instances, incarcerated veterans participate, giving them an emotional connection to their dog’s future handler and partner. Incarcerated veterans who are honorably discharged are given preference to become raisers, but all candidates must have acceptable behavior records while incarcerated and pass a prison intelligence department screening.
After passing the screening, the incarcerated prisoner can then begin training with their future service dog. Puppies are transported to the prisons at 8-9 weeks old in groups of 3 – 4 where a primary and secondary handler is then paired to work with each puppy. Basic skills are immediately taught to each puppy as they live in the handler’s cell with crate training. The vast majority of each pup’s day is spent outside the cell, attending classes, programs, observing recreational activities and going to meals in the chow hall along with their handlers. An America’s VetDogs instructor travels to each prison facility once a week providing instructing on how to train the dogs during a two-hour class.
Handlers not only teach basic obedience but service dog tasks as well, such as retrieving dropped items, tugging doors open, pushing handicapped door buttons, and providing brace and balance on stairs.
Another unique aspect of the program is the opportunity to be a weekend puppy raiser. Each weekend, puppies go home with a volunteer to experience life around other people. These “weekend puppy raisers” teach house manners, socialize them to car rides, traffic noise and visit stores, restaurants, and hospitals so that they will be confident wherever their future veteran partner will go.
When puppies reach adulthood and the instructor feels they are mature enough, the dogs then go back to America’s VetDogs for assessment, final training, and client matching.
If you are interested in becoming a weekend puppy raiser, head to https://www.vetdogs.org/AV/DogPrograms/WeekendPuppyRaiser.aspx and apply.