Set in the lush New York City suburb of Westchester County, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility–New York State’s largest women’s prison and its only maximum-security prison for women’has housed many infamous prisoners. But there is a more positive and inspiring aspect to the Bedford Hills prison that most people are unaware of: Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), an extraordinary program that allows inmates–many of them serving long prison sentences for violent crimes–a chance to turn selected puppies into highly trained service dogs for the disabled, or explosive-detection canines for law enforcement. The program–which started at Bedford in 1997 with five puppies–now operates at six correctional facilities in the tri-state (NY, NJ, CT) area and boasts 377 canine graduates.
Puppies and Inmates, In it Together
Puppies chosen for the program live in the cells with their primary caregivers, “puppy raisers,” and attend classes administered by PBB. They also spend two or three weekends a month in the homes of “puppy sitters,” so they can be exposed to things they won’t experience in prison, such as the sound of a doorbell or a coffee grinder, or learning how to safely ride in a car or walk down a crowded sidewalk.
Inmates who wish to become puppy raisers must sign a contract with PBB outlining their responsibilities and providing that any inmate may be asked to leave for any reason deemed appropriate by PBB. Requirements for participation in the program are strict, and include mandatory attendance at weekly puppy class as well as successful completion of reading assignments, homework, and exams. The puppy raiser must always put the needs of the puppy before his or her own, must be able to work effectively as a member of a team, and must be able to give and receive criticism in a constructive manner.
The puppies live in the prison for sixteen months, after which they are tested to determine their suitability for training as service dogs for the disabled or explosive-detection dogs for law enforcement. The dogs judged to be suitable are returned to the schools where they continue their formal training. Those who don’t continue on the working-dog track are donated by PBB to families with blind children. In either case, these dogs spend their lives as companions to people who need them.
How it All Began
The PBB story began in 1990, after founder and now-president Gloria Gilbert Stoga and her husband adopted Arrow, a labrador retriever, from one of North America’s most prestigious guide dog schools, Guiding Eyes for the Blind. (Arrow had been on his way to becoming a guide dog, but medical reasons required his release from the program.)
Stoga started doing some research and learned about the extraordinary effort and expense that goes into the training of service dogs–in particular, the critical work of puppy raisers–individuals or families who take specially bred, eight-week-old pups into their homes for a sixteen-month period and teach them basic obedience and socialization skills. Subsequently–inspired by the work of Dr. Thomas Lane, a Florida veterinarian who started the first guide-dog/prison program–Stoga left her job at New York City’s Youth Empowerment Services Commission to found PBB.
Both people and dogs are transformed by the PBB experience. The pups become highly trained, well-behaved animals with a mission. The inmate trainers who have raised them also change: the responsibility of raising a dog for a disabled person and the opportunity to give something back to society provide inmates with an avenue for personal growth that would not otherwise be open to them. As a result, they form deep and lasting attachments to the dogs, learning patience, responsibility, and how to work as part of a team; for many, the relationship with the animal they train is the most positive and satisfying one they have ever had.
As Stoga explained, the puppies have affected the lives not only of their puppy raisers, but also of virtually all the inmates and staff at the prison: “One of our particularly sensitive pups goes to several different areas of the prison: the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old inmates play with her; domestic violence classes use her to get the women to open up and talk; and she even visits inmates who are about to go before the parole board, for it has been found that her presence has a calming effect on the women.”
Serving Those Who Have Served Us
Recognizing the special contribution and sacrifice of those who have served in the U.S. military, PBB established a special program to provide service dogs to veterans returning home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered a physical injury, traumatic brain injury, or who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Designated “Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us,” the program provided its first specially trained dog to Sergeant Bill Campbell, an Iraq veteran who suffers from serious PTSD, a life-altering condition that is characterized by panic attacks, severe depression, memory loss, nightmares and fear of public places. Campbell’s Dog Tags-trained companion, Pax, reminds him to take his daily medications, alerts him to approaching strangers, and responds to the command “Block” by placing his body between Campbell and an approaching individual.
From Behind Bars….Freedom
Though PBB’s puppies start out behind bars, they make their way into the wider world, where they bring love, security, and–ironically–freedom to those they serve.
Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS