Prison Puppies Trained to Help Veterans

Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times
At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Bliss Edwards teaching her puppy, Athena, the ?watch me? command.
JAYMIE POWERS, a 43-year-old mother of three grown children who is in prison for second-degree murder, is seated in a wheelchair pretending to be a disabled person shopping at a supermarket. She is working on getting a Labrador retriever, Devon, to fetch a box of cereal from a counter and place it in a straw bag.

?Devon, watch me!? she commands, trying to get Devon to fix his attention on her.

?Devon, up,? she says, coaxing him to climb onto the counter.

It takes a while for Devon to get his mouth around the edge of the box but when he finally does, Ms. Powers orders him to ?drop it!? and he does, right into the straw bag.

?That?s it!? Ms. Powers says with a grin of accomplishment, while her fellow prisoners at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility applaud.

Ms. Powers is one of about 30 women here who take part in a program run by an organization called Puppies Behind Bars that gets inmates at several prisons in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to help train service dogs to assist disabled people, including veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Except for their standard-issue, forest-green garb, the women at Bedford Hills who train the dogs would not appear to be out of place at a suburban book club. Several are gray-haired grandmothers, and they speak as genially and sensibly about their lives as your next-door neighbor might. As they work with the dogs, it is difficult to remember that they are incarcerated ? that?s their favorite word to describe their confinement ? in a maximum-security prison because they have been convicted of killing or stabbing people or other major felonies.

The tender mercy here is that a dog does not know the difference between a prisoner and a model citizen. It responds to kindness, firmness, patience and consistency. And these women provide these qualities in bucketfuls as they train dogs to complete tasks that a disabled person cannot take for granted, like flipping a light switch, shutting a closet door or taking off socks.

?One of the things prison usually means is being useless, being defined by our worst acts,? said Judy, 58, a New York City mother with close-cropped graying hair who did not want to give her last name or to describe the crimes that landed her here. ?The program gives me a sense I can be useful, useful to people on the outside, to some person who can be helped by having the fruits of my work. There?s a sense that what we do has a life that?s positive in other people?s lives.?

The program currently places a total of 80 dogs in seven prisons in the three states of the New York region: the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility here in Westchester County, a prison for 960 women that has held inmates like Jeanne Harris and still holds Carolyn Warmus; the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for women in Clinton, N.J.; the Federal Correctional Institution, a women?s prison in Danbury, Conn.; and four New York State men?s prisons in Fishkill, Warwick, Wallkill and Otisville.

The puppies, all Labradors and golden retrievers, arrive at the prison when they are eight weeks old. They live in metal crates within the women?s small but neat cells. The puppies remain inside the prison, working mostly with the same inmate, until they are 20 months, learning 82 commands before they are ready for their next level of more tailored training. The prisoners have learned, as part of the training, to refine their voice tones in directing the dogs ? as Ms. Powers did after the shopping exercise ? and the value of the consistency of their stares.

Many of the dogs will eventually be farmed out free of charge to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are themselves confined ? to wheelchairs or to navigating life with a missing limb or two. (Indeed, the program is trying to make veterans more aware of the dogs? availability.) Some women have a particularly tender spot for these ex-soldiers.

?We have a responsibility to these men who fought so hard for our country,? said Annette, 49, an inmate at Bedford Hills whose home is in upstate Monroe County and who declined to give her last name or describe the circumstances that led to her imprisonment.

Laurie Kellogg, 43, of Massachusetts, a slightly built woman who has been jailed for a murder that she said resulted from domestic violence, has trained a Labrador, Pax, now helping an Iraq war veteran, Bill Campbell, in Washington State.

?What I?ve done is put a year of love into this puppy who in turn will give a lifetime of love to Bill and his wife,? she said.


By: bellava (54160.28)

Tags: prison, puppies, iraq ,vets, ptsd

Location: Seoul, Korea (South)


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