New leash on life
The program Puppies Behind Bars gives inmates the challenge - and joy - of raising guide dogs
Does a prison inmate have the love and discipline required to properly nurture a puppy?Skip to next paragraph
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That question troubled Jane Russenberger when she first heard about Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), the unusual New York City-based program that allows inmates at two state prisons to raise guide dogs for the blind. But it's a question that Ms. Russenberger, senior director of breeding and placement for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide-dog training school in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., asks no more. Today, she is eager to work with all the prison-raised dogs she can.
"The love, the level of commitment, the high level of manners the dogs develop - what comes out of the prisons is different from what we're seeing anywhere else," she says.
At first glance, puppies and inmates may seem an incongruous pairing, but Gloria Gilbert Stoga, founder and president of PBB, has proven otherwise.
Puppies Behind Bars is not the first program of its kind. The idea had its genesis in Florida, and was replicated in Ohio. But Mrs. Stoga had an uphill battle before she was allowed to place puppies with inmates - first at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for female inmates in 1997, then at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for men in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1998.
Although the program costs the state nothing, prison authorities worried it could prove an unnecessary distraction at best, and a negative experience for the dogs at worst. Guide-dog schools and users were also concerned, questioning whether the prison environment could ever be an appropriate one for puppies.
For Stoga, however - who had earlier adopted a guide dog as a pet and took a great interest in the animals and their training - it was an idea with an immediate, innate appeal. "It just made so much sense," she says. "My interest was knowing the impact dogs could make in the life of a blind person and somehow intuitively grasping the impact they could also make on the lives of emotionally fragile people like prisoners."
Finding the right raisers for guide dogs has always been a serious business. These pups must spend their first years experiencing a genuine love bond with a human, developing unshakable self-confidence, and learning basic good manners.
Finding raisers who will commit the necessary time and care is not always easy - especially when those who adopt the dogs know they will be required to give them up within a year or two.
But inmates, who have large amounts of time on their hands without the normal distractions of life, have proven ideal. The fact that they are able to attend to the dogs almost without interruption appears in many cases to have accelerated the dogs' development.
In the PBB program, each dog is assigned a primary trainer - who becomes the dog's principal caregiver and source of love - while other inmates serve as "floaters" who step in and work with different dogs at different moments. (Inmates are interviewed and screened before being allowed into the program; no one who has committed a "heinous" crime is permitted to work with the dogs (see box, left).
At Fishkill, 15 inmates and seven to nine dogs are involved in the program. Dogs sleep in the cells of the inmates with whom they are paired, and stay with them throughout most of the day. Prisoners in the program live in a separate wing and are allowed to take their meals in their quarters with the dogs. Twice a week, inmates and dogs meet for training classes. The dogs practice sitting, standing, heeling, and simply learning to walk up and down a crowded room without becoming distracted. During much of the rest of the day, they fall into a routine of familiarity with their trainers, much as they would if they were part of a family.
"Joshua has given me back my peace of mind," says Roosevelt Lewis, an inmate in the program, of the frisky golden retriever who shares his cell and wakes him each morning with an affectionate lick. The powerful attachment between Joshua and his trainer - who sometimes gaze soulfully into one another's eyes - is evident at a glance. Even during play period in the prison yard, Joshua prefers to spend some of his time lying with his head resting between Mr. Lewis's boots rather than romping with other dogs. And Joshua is more than just a good companion, insists Lewis. "He lets me know I'm still a human being." The dog has taught him much, he says, about "pure, unadulterated love."
Participation in PBB is more than just a love fest for inmates and puppies. By all accounts, Stoga runs a tight ship. Inmates involved in the program attend classes on puppy training, do reading, homework, and take tests. Those unwilling to work are ejected from the program.