Sep 3, 2009

Puppies Behind Bars

It's a win/win situation.
Take a prison inmate who wants to contribute to society while incarcerated, who wants to do something positive for others.
Take a wounded soldier who is a prisoner in his/her own home, withdrawn, shell shocked, physically or mentally incapacitated in some way with traumatic brain injury or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
What brings them together? A pup. A wonderful, loving, smart dog.
Gloria Gilbert Stoga started Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) in 1997 as a non profit organization to teach inmates how to train guide dogs for the blind. She soon discovered that the program simultaneously helped inmates learn patience, what it is like to be completely responsible for a living being, how to give and receive unconditional love, and how to work as a team. After 9/11/01, PBB added the training of explosive detection canines (EDCs) to its program. In 2006, PBB started raising dogs to assist disabled children and adults and launched Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us, through which they donate fully trained service dogs to wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And that is what caught my attention. Labrador pups are now being taught to help those with PTS disorder, as well as those veterans with physically limiting injuries. Service dogs are taught around 85 different commands that soldiers and marines have reported would be useful -- picking up objects, opening doors, holding doors open, getting water from fridge, turning on and off lights …. …. Dogs are even taught to dial 911 – to knock the receiver off and push any button on a large wall phone that automatically dials 911 regardless which numbers are pressed. The dog takes the soldier's attention off "hyper vigilance mode" so he/she can relax more and focus on navigating through and participating in life.
A qualified inmate gets the puppy at 8 weeks old to train as either a bomb sniffing dog or a service dog. A bomb sniffing dog stays with them for about a year while service dogs stay 1 1/2 - 2 years. (Bomb sniffing dogs are taught to use noses rather than eyes to find hidden objects, do a search pattern in a room, things like that) The training for either assignment is different, but the love is the same. Dogs live with the inmate in the cells 24/7. A kennel is set up in cell and the dogs are trained throughout the day in small segments. Dogs go everywhere with inmates. Commands such as sit, down & stay are reinforced throughout day. Specialized commands maybe trained in 20 minute intervals throughout the day.

The pups are sorted into categories according to the assignment for which they appear to be best suited: bomb sniffing or service. Dogs have different personalities and different penchants for training. For example, the typical bomb sniffer is the dog who is going to be more out front, make decisions. The service dog will look at owner/handler and ask "what do you want me to do now? Do you want me to watch the door, guard your back, turn on the light?” The bomb sniffer is more in your face, and the service dog is more “Ok, tell me what’s next and I’ll do it.”

In addition to the inmates' work in the prison, over 400 volunteers agree to take the puppies out of prison on weekends to expose them to the real world – buses or kids on skateboards or loud noises, etc., so the dogs get used to urban chaos. Because rescued dogs often have unknown medical problems, PBB gets all their dogs from breeders. Fully trained dogs incur an expense of about $26,000, per dog, per soldier. PBB pays 100% of this cost. Click on the donate button above if you'd like to offer support.
To learn more about the Service Dogs for Veterans, click here. To apply for a service dog, please contact Puppies Behind Bars at 212.680.9562 and they will refer you to the appropriate service dog school with whom they have a partnership.

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