New leash on life
The program Puppies Behind Bars gives inmates the challenge - and joy - of raising guide dogs
(Page 2 of 2)
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"I ask them to fully understand what it is that they're doing, and if they can't handle the responsibility I ask them to leave," she says. But in many ways, the fact that she now works closely with inmates is a piece of irony. Stoga, who views herself as a political conservative, says that prior to PBB she held a very negative view of prison inmates. "I saw them as incorrigible," she says. But, she adds, that was before the program gave her a chance to know them as individuals.
"I'm tough with them," she admits. "I don't give them a lot of second and third chances. But I respect them, and I enjoy working with them." She laughs ruefully as she recalls that a while ago one male inmate taught her a new vocabulary word. She didn't know the meaning of the word "martinet," she says, until he told her it applied to her.
But while the inmates agree that Stoga can be severe, many express tremendous gratitude and admiration for her, with some insisting that exposure to PBB has been a turning point for them. "I owe her my life," says Lewis. "She trusted me with Joshua, and she gave me a chance to give something back to society."
For many inmates the hardest part of participation in PBB is the knowledge that at the age of close to two years, the dogs will leave, first for up to an additional year of training, and then, for those who make it - only about half of the dogs raised to be guide dogs are actually selected - on to spend most of their adult years working.
The inmates get some practice at separating from the dogs as the animals are occasionally shifted between Fishkill and Bedford Hills so they can become used to trainers of the opposite sex. Dogs also regularly spend weekends with volunteer sitters in the outside world to expose them to experiences like street noises, walking in traffic, and riding in the car.
But even so, "It's going to break my heart," says Danny Capaldo, primary trainer of Katie, an 11-month-old black Labrador, of the day when she will leave him. "She's my princess." Vince Mojica says that the day he said good-bye to Rosie, the yellow Lab he raised, he cried. But he was also filled with joy when a prison guard told him, "You did a good thing."
Several of the inmates say the program has also transformed their relationship with the prison staff, and that they feel a new respect being accorded them as a result of their work with the dogs. Many of the guards agree. Having the puppies in the prison "has made this a different place to work," says Lt. Gretta Wilkerson, an officer working at Fishkill. "When you see the dogs walking around you have to smile. It's made us all grow."
Reservations about prison dogs
Currently, Stoga hopes to increase the number of dogs in Fishkill and Bedford Hills, as well as expand to another New York prison. Many associated with guide-dog users warmly praise the program, although they agree that there are those who have reservations about the concept of dogs in prison, and also warn that in less capable hands than Stoga's, there could be problems. "There were people who felt violently about not wanting prison dogs," admits Jenine Stanley, past president of Guide Dog Users Inc. and a guide-dog user herself. But her own concerns have been quelled by the quality of the dogs PBB has produced.
"All the raisers do a good job, but this is a different caliber of dog coming out of the prison program," says Ms. Stanley. "They're more stable, more well-adjusted. The one-on-one attention they get as they grow up is really valuable."
Judy Goldman, a former nurse living in Pittsburgh, was one of the first guide-dog users to receive a prison-raised dog. She had no idea initially where Lucie, a black Lab, had been raised, but says the dog was a standout from the first day she began working with her. "She was so well-behaved, so obedient," she says. "We began calling her the executive dog because all her moves were so perfect."
When Ms. Goldman learned that Lucie came from Bedford Hills, she arranged a visit to the prison to meet and thank the inmates. "They put a lot of love and care into raising these dogs, and I could just sense that," she says.
She was also touched to realize how much it meant to the inmates to see Lucie excelling at her work. "They're so proud, and they well should be. They do an excellent job," she says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society