by Sue Ann Rybak
— Part Three
One look into a 8-week-old Labrador Retriever’s big brown eyes, and even the hardest criminals heart will melt. Canine Partners for Life’s prison puppy raising program is healing inmates’ hearts and spirits, using man’s best friend. Canine Partners for Life (CPL), a local non-profit organization that trains service dogs, home companion dogs and residential companion dogs to assist individuals with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities.
“Over half of the puppies we have are being raised in correctional facilities in Pennsylvania and Maryland,” said Darlene Sullivan, executive director for Canine Partners for Life. “The pups bring smiles to a place that is often hard and cold. Puppies can provide unconditional love and offer no judgment.”
In 2013, 42 puppies received care and training from dedicated inmates in seven prisons throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland. “Having this program in place has helped us immeasurably in creating a pool of highly trained service dogs to meet the increasing numbers of CPL applicants,” Sullivan said.
Prior to receiving a puppy, the inmate handlers are vigorously screened and then receive training from Canine Partners for Life. The puppies are sent to the institution at about 8 weeks of age and remain at the institution for one year of training.
Each dog is assigned two inmate handlers who are responsible for training and caring for the dog. The dogs live in their assigned handlers’ cells and are provided a crate for sleeping in. After spending a year at the correctional facility, the dogs return to CPL for advanced training before being assigned to a recipient. “The inmates share their cell space and their lives for the next year, 24 hours a day,” said Tina Staley, Corrections Counselor at SCI Greene Prison in Pennsylvania.
Staley added that the 11 inmates get together on a weekly basis to participate in obedience classes, and a volunteer trainer visits the institution every week or two to provide ongoing training and evaluation.
“The inmates, handlers and staff interactions with the puppies have been very positive,” Staley said. “It is clear that the inmates are forming a real bond with the pups that is evidenced in the patient, gentle ways in which they train and interact with the pups on a daily basis. The arrival of the pups brought a feeling of excitement for both the inmates and the staff. It is amazing to see how positively the puppies have impacted the overall atmosphere of the institution.”
She said the program provides inmates with a tangible way to give back to their communities. “This program will instill a sense of responsibility, discipline and social awareness for the inmates involved and at no cost to the taxpayer,” Staley said. “It’s amazing the difference dogs make in the inmates’ day to day life.”
Sullivan said inmates’ lives are profoundly changed by the program. “Their (the dogs) presence promotes conversations between inmates and guards, breaking down barriers and easing tensions. The program is very successful. We have always received well-trained dogs from our prison puppy training program.”
One inmate who participated in CPL’s prison puppy raising program at SCI Greene said, “I feel that this program has reminded me what it is like to really be responsible. It’s easy enough to think you know what responsibility is until you are actually providing constant care. It has been very rewarding in that it gave me the opportunity to make a real difference and enjoy the companionship of this puppy.”
For more information about Canine Partners for Life, visit www.k94life.org.