Some of the prison inmates at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, train service dogs that will ultimately be placed with disabled veterans.
The program, which began in October with three puppies, has expanded to nine dogs being trained by 20 inmates who serve as primary and back-up handlers.
Bob, who was a drug addict and often wasn’t able to care for himself before his incarceration takes meticulous care of his dog, Vette, a black Labrador retriever.
“It’s a great privilege to take care of a living animal. They love you no matter what,” Bob said.
Vette only knows unconditional love from Bob, and returns that love back to the inmate.
Bob, whose brother is a colonel in the Marine Corps, takes pride in being part of Vette’s training. “I want him to be a good dog for the veteran,” Bob said.
Initially, some correctional officers were against the program. They worried for the safety of the dogs and felt the program didn’t belong at a prison. They have since changed their minds.
“The dogs have changed the atmosphere of the unit, but for the better,” said one correctional officer.
Weekdays, the dogs are with their inmate handlers. On weekends, the dogs are released to local volunteer families who serve as weekend puppy raisers, giving the service dogs the valuable socialization experiences that they cannot get behind prison walls.
Every Friday, Steve, a Golden retriever, is released from the correctional center into the custody of Rebekah Caylor and her family.
“It’s been a great experience. Everyone in church knows Steve. He’s awesome,” Caylor said.
On an outing to the local supermarket, 1-year-old Steve didn’t bark once and dutifully paid the cashier with a bill that Caylor handed him. He also pressed the crosswalk button for her.
She recognizes the importance the program has for the rehabilitation of the inmates. “It’s got to give them hope and a sense of responsibility and a feeling of unconditional love. It’s a really good thing,” Caylor said.
After a year at the correctional facility, the dogs spend another year of specialized training at the Guide Dog Foundation’s campus in New York, and are then matched with veterans.
“It’s a wonderful thing to hear a veteran say, ‘Thanks for my dog. I go out and do things again’,” said Guide Dog Foundation Communications Manager Bill Krol. “That makes it all really worthwhile.”