One of the most creative and effective programs developed and implemented in many countries that involves both dogs and inmates is the specialized Assistance Dog program. These programs go under a variety of names however they are unique in that prisoners are responsible for training an Assistance Dog that will, after training is completed, be provided for a disabled veteran to be able to live a better quality of life.
How the Programs Work
Depending on the specific state or country that the Assistance Dog program is operated in, there will be slightly different training programs and methods. Typically in most areas prisoners are selected based on their interest in the program or due to requesting the opportunity to work with the Assistance Dog program. Prisoners in the program agree to follow the guidelines set out by professional Assistance Dog trainers that work with the inmates and the dogs.
The dogs go through extensive training with the inmates both in obedience as well as specific types of assistance work. Assistance dogs may be taught to stand as a support for disabled people to be able to sit and stand with assistance, they can be taught to fetch and retrieve specific objects, pick up dropped objects and help out around the house. Assistance dogs learn a wide variety of basic commands as well as the names of common household items. Some assistance dogs can also be taught to take off shoes and socks, help with laundry, answer the door and act as Guide Dogs for disabled veterans with limited vision or vision impairments. All Assistance Dogs are taught to respond to their handlers when they fall, moving into position so the handler can use the dog to get back up into a chair or into a safe position and call for help. The prisoners act as the primary trainers, working with the dogs on a daily basis. They also help to socialize the dogs and incorporate trusting humans and working with different handlers as part of the overall training program.
The results of prison assistance dog training programs have far exceeded the first expectations. Not only are the dogs in high demand to support disabled veterans, but the prisoner that complete the training and are approved to participate in the assistance dog program as handlers and trainers also gain a new set of skills. It helps reconnect these incarcerated inmates with the real world as they are responsible for the training of the dogs. In turn the dogs give unconditional love and acceptance to the inmates. Although the dog will eventually go forward to live with a disabled vet, the inmates often remain in contact with the new owner and the dog through email and letters. This provides another tie to the world that is positive and supportive of the incarcerated individual's personal change.
Where Do The Dogs Come From?
Most of the dogs used in the prison assistance dog programs are found in local shelters or are donated by specific breeders. Generally donations of puppies from the community are not accepted, simply because there are very demanding requirements for the dogs prior to the training. Puppies at the age of six months are usually the most used throughout the programs, although some older and younger are also accepted in different programs.
The majority of dogs used in most assistance dog programs are Labrador Retrievers or Lab crosses. These dogs are known to be very mild tempered, typically non-aggressive and very easy to socialize. They are also natural retrievers and are ideal watchdogs without the aggressive behaviors of some of the other guard dog breeds. Many Labs and Lab crosses also are well developed physically without being huge dogs that would have difficulty working and living in small spaces. The breed is also known for its almost human like understanding and response to human emotions, making them terrific companion pets and working dogs.
This program is not as well distributed throughout the country, however it is becoming more popular in areas with large animal shelters and prisons in the same general location.
In this program dogs at shelters that are not able to be adopted and are either long-term rescue shelter dogs or dogs facing euthanasia at community facilities are assisted by the prison programs. Often these dogs are not adopted because they don't have proper care, look matted and uncared for or lack proper training. The dogs are taken in by the prison dog training program and are literally groomed, trained and socialized to be well behaved and outstanding canines. At that point they are "Paroled" back to the community where they have a chance to be adopted.
The success of this program in areas where it is active has dramatically affected the lives of both the dogs that go through the program plus allowed the inmates to learn new skills and give back to the community. There is, in most areas, a waiting list for adoptive owners for these Paroled Pets. New owners often continue to send updates and pictures to the inmates that were responsible for truly changing the dog's life.
While most of the programs are managed and operated as non-profit organizations and staffed by volunteer staff and trainers, it still costs an estimated $20,000 to fully train and care for an Assistance Dog before he or she can be assigned to a needy veteran. There are literally hundreds of disabled veterans waiting for Assistance Dogs and the numbers continue to rise every year. Although some state and government funds are used to help keep the prison training programs going, there are always additional expenses that must be met. The different organizations that help coordinate these programs in your area are always in need of donations of cash or basic dog supplies such as food, grooming brushes, dog bedding and even leashes and collars. If you want to get involved contact your local Department of Corrections or Prison System. Find out where and how to donate or volunteer to these very worthwhile programs.