Puppies Behind Bars
Pink tummies, moist noses and that indescribably delicious puppy smell—not impressions one usually associates with prison walls, razor wire and incarceration. But these little innocents are, in fact, changing the lives of some of those imprisoned behind bars as well as the lives of veterans and first responders with whom the dogs will eventually be placed.
The puppies, who go into prisons at eight weeks of age, graduate at the age of two, ready to assume lives of service. In the meantime, their caregiver/trainers learn what it means to contribute to society rather than to take from it while preparing the dogs for their future roles.
Gloria Gilbert Stoga founded Puppies Behind Bars in 1997 when she began teaching a group of carefully selected inmates to raise service dogs at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s only maximum-security prison for women. She brought the first five puppies into the prison just before Thanksgiving that year. There are approximately 140 inmates currently in the program raising puppies in New York and New Jersey. In the past 24 years over 3,000 inmates have participated in the program. The monetary value of each canine donation is about $48,000.
Puppies Behind Bars was four years old in September 2001 but took on even greater meaning after the terrorist attacks of that year. “We saw how that day changed our city, our country and the world,” the organization’s website says. “We saw how first responders worked tirelessly to keep our city and country safe. In the intervening years we have seen threats to our safety increase and we have seen the increasingly hard jobs we, as Americans, ask of first responders all across our country.”
Puppies Behind Bars workers have seen firsthand how the dogs can help Iraq and Afghanistan war vets and first responders suffering from wounds both visible and psychic. Today the dogs’ responsibilities have been expanded even further with many trained to detect explosives thus helping to prevent further catastrophes. Puppies chosen for this latest career path exhibit higher energy, are more independent and have a stronger prey drive than those directed toward support roles.
Stoga says PBB’s dogs are particularly empathetic because of the experiences they have with the inmates. “They are really, really good dog trainers,” she said, explaining that the animals absorb such intangible skills as empathy and working together as a team. “We hear constantly that our dogs have a bond with humans not seen in other dogs,” she said in a videotaped interview. “That is because, not only do they spend 24/7 with their trainers but they are already used to living with someone who needs them.”
By the time one of the dogs is paired with his or her human it has at least 10,000 hours of socialization, going to schools, libraries, houses of worship, baseball games, kids’ football games, to the movies and on city buses and trains.
Area families will be able to learn more about this fulfilling endeavor Saturday, July 24th, at 3 PM when Stoga comes to Cornwall Library for a free outdoor program. Stoga will explain how Puppies Behind Bars’ dogs are trained and will be accompanied by Officer Jonathan Stackhouse and his service dog, Zane, from the Acton MA police department. Zane, a yellow Labrador retriever, is one of the most recent graduates of the program and works with Stackhouse every day both in the police department and in the local community. Together, they visit senior centers, go into classrooms to work with at-risk students and much more.
Stackhouse and his dog will demonstrate some of the 92 commands that Zane was taught by his prison “puppy raisers.” He can, for instance, dial 911 from a specialized phone, turn lights on and off, open doors, push elevator buttons and open cabinets. Zane, who just passed his one-year anniversary riding with Stackhouse in a specially equipped cruiser, also provides therapeutic care in traumatic situations.