I often get asked a lot of questions about the non-profit organization that Sugar is with and it’s programs. Sometimes it’s difficult to answer the questions, because as a volunteer I do my part and I try to learn that part to the best of my ability, but I realize that it is only one tiny piece of the HUGE puzzle that makes an organization like this work on a daily basis and become successful. On many occasions I am overwhelmed thinking about each piece and what it must take to pull it all off and get little 8 week old puppies to their final destination with their client. One of the areas that I get many questions about is the prison programs and how they work. Sugar has had puppies from her litters become part of the prison programs and her latest litter is planning to start their journey in the Stanley program in Wisconsin.
I have to be honest and say I’m not completely sure of all of the details and it changes with time, but I do know without this critical component of the program, many people wouldn’t have gotten a dog yet. And it’s not just about “numbers”. I believe this program changes lives. I can tell you that I know the program has been successful for both puppies and humans alike because I have seen the dogs raised in prison graduate to change the lives of their clients, and at one of the dog graduations last year one of the former inmates also attended to present a dog he had helped to train while in prison. I took some time to go over and talk to him, thank him for his work with the dogs and see what he had to say. What I learned is that working with these dogs while he was an inmate gave him hope-something he hadn’t had for a long time. It gave him confidence in himself that he could return to society and be a productive member rather than returning to his previous lifestyle. He also felt great that he had learned a skill that could be part of a resume that he could utilize to get a job so that he could realize his potential, and that he was seen for something other than his mistakes. I asked him about his plans in the near future, and he said he was looking at a variety of jobs in the animal industry. During our conversation I also found out that he was one of the volunteer inmates that worked with one of the dogs we were puppy raising that went there while we were whelping one of Sugar’s litters. We immediately had a common connection and we talked about this goofy, funny and lovable dog that we both had worked with and that had stolen a piece of our heart. It was an eye opening experience for me, and without the common connection of our volunteer experience, I’m sad to say that I may have missed this wonderful opportunity to wish this young man a happy and hopeful future and thank him for his service training the dogs.
I get questions asking if the dogs are safe, why is this program important and why can’t organizations just use people who aren’t in prison? I’ve asked myself many of those questions along the way as well. Every year volunteering I learn a little bit more and I’m even more impressed than I was before. I can tell you that I am sure that inmates are as carefully selected as the volunteers in the community in order to volunteer, the rules and requirements to be in the program are not easy, the dog’s care, safety and learning is at the forefront during their time with ANY volunteer whether in prison or the community, the dogs are given many opportunities to get out in the community with fosters so that they have a wide range of experiences and can be well rounded, and that I can only imagine what the waiting lists for assistance dogs would be like if we didn’t have the help and volunteers through the prison program. I can also say that I am frequently amazed at the skills that the inmates have acquired and have taught these dogs; and I would love the opportunity to have them train ME on how they teach some of those things! Everyone deserves the opportunity to make a difference in another persons life.
Assistance dog organizations are always looking for additional volunteers and they simply can’t grow and meet the needs of those on the waiting lists without additional help. Prison fosters that get the dogs out for long weekends, regular fosters, puppy raisers, great start homes, dog walkers……and the list goes on an on. All of that has to happen so that the dogs in the organization can be given away free to a client to give them independence. All volunteers get to give love and receive love, they get to work towards something that helps others, and they get to hopefully see the results of their hard work. Regardless of who you are, the impact is universal if you are volunteering for the right reasons – and just like most of us volunteers we are amazed that the first life the dog changes forever is our own.
These are some of the quotes from stories about prison programs on the East Coast and Colorado. And although each program is entirely different (some train dogs for service dog organizations and some take in rescues and rehabilitate them as well as many other options) and the development and refinement of these programs since this article in 2004 has been wonderful over the years to continue to improve it and increase the success of both the programs and those who participate in them , there is a commonality in their stories.
From a Smithsonian article titled “New Leash on Life” ( New leash on life article) way back in 2004 about what the dogs do for them:
Veteran raiser says he learned more from giving up his first dog than taking care of it. “It’s called empathy. I didn’t know it existed in me until that moment.”
“We’re not raising these dogs, we’re in partnership with them and with each other”
“The love we get and the love we give reaches society before we get there, in the form of these wonderful working dogs.”
“All of us in the program are sorry for what we’ve done, but instead of just saying it, which is easy, we’re showing it,” he says. “These dogs make time here almost bearable.”
“I’ve seen 6-foot-2, 250-pound guys rolling around on the floor kissing and talking in a high voice to their dogs. We all do it, even in the yard with 200 other inmates and guards walking by. We don’t care what anybody thinks. It’s all about what’s good for the dogs. We owe them. They did what nothing or nobody could—they took away our selfishness.”
“The inmates are highly motivated and raise very well-behaved dogs, as good as those of our best raisers,” says Jane Russenberger, senior director of breeding and placement for Guiding Eyes.
From a Colorado program that rehabilitates rescues and has produced some episodes about their success- Saving Castaways
“It’s like two goods for the price of one.”
“The coolest thing the program taught me is responsibility,” he says. “If we mess this up, we lose something that’s really cool.”