Bring 2 dogs into a room and the outcome is inevitable: a crowd forms. Well, the same thing happens in the prison.
“Dogs have this special quality – it’s hard to put into words. But it changes the atmosphere in the prison. The guards want to see the puppies; the inmates want to see the puppies. People in prison are still human, and the puppies have an amazing way of bringing this human element out and connecting people,” said Gilbert Molina, an Assistant Instructor with Puppies Behind Bars.
Nora Moran, Director of the Dog Tags Program went on to explain how the program serves to empower individuals in prison. “The program is rigorous and takes commitment. It’s unusual to have a program in prison where the inmates are the leaders. But they get to know their dog’s body language, behavior, and needs the best, so when it’s time to hand the dog over to the veteran, the prisoner gets to teach them the commands. They become the experts and the instructors.”
Both Nora and Gilbert are former puppy raisers, so they can attest to the power of the Puppies Behind Bars program. On April 25, Nora and Gilbert, along with their adorable dogs (Hannah and Fairfield), explained the details of the Dog Tags Program in a workshop entitled Pizza & Puppies! at Columbia University School of Social Work, sponsored by the Criminal Justice Caucus in partnership with the Veteran’s Affairs Caucus.
Not only does the puppy help the individual accept their time in prison and make the most of it, but it also allows them to give back to society and to our troops while serving their sentence. “These dogs work with people in prison who have been wounded and who have wounded others, and they are trained to work with and serve people who are wounded and have wounded others,” said Nora.
Puppy raisers are responsible for caring for their dog from 8 weeks old until they are about 2 years old in the prison. During this time, the dog is taught over 90 service commands, including how to turn lights on and off, carry shopping bags, do laundry, and even pick-up your keys if you drop them! To help with the socialization process, Puppies Behind Bars relies on volunteers to take the dogs for 1 week every month into their homes and expose them to grocery stores, parks, crowded malls, and parking lots. The puppy raisers also keep journals chronicling the day-to-day activities of the puppy, which is given to the veteran when they are ready to adopt their service dogs. Being a puppy raiser while in prison forced Nora to grow and stay focused. “You need to be the best ‘you’ you can be for these dogs, and that is what changes people. It’s a transformation.”
The Dog Tags Program places 15 dogs per year with wounded veterans across the country. The program serves a unique need because while society has grown accustomed to guide dogs for the blind, psychiatric service dogs are much less common. In addition to the 90 commands taught to all service dogs, the puppies in this program are being trained to learn 7 new commands specific to serving veterans with PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injury. Some of these new commands include “HELP” (the dog uses a programmed phone to dial 911 in the event of an emergency), “CLEAR” (the dog enters a room before the veteran, turns on the lights, and searches the perimeter to see if anyone is in the room), “TAKE POINT” (when in a crowded room, the dog will lead the veteran to the nearest exit if they start feeling overwhelmed), “WATCH BY BACK” (the dog stands behind the veteran and informs them if anyone is behind them using their body language), and “BLOCK” (the dog creates a physical, yet not intimidating, boundary between the veteran and other people who are interested in approaching). The puppies in this program even know how to “SALUTE” (showing patriotism and respect, as well as a distraction when the veteran feels uncomfortable engaging in conversation with the other person).
Gilbert explained that the process of giving up their closest companion for the past 20+ months with incredible emotion and honesty. While it is taboo for men in prison to show their feelings, it is one of the hardest things they have to go through. However, the tremendous sense of pride they feel in themselves and in their dogs while training the wounded veteran and service dog to become a team makes it all worthwhile. When the 2-week long farewell is finally over, what do most puppy raisers do? They go straight back to the office to sign-up for the process all over again. That’s the good kind of revolving door.