Puppies Behind Bars

Besides being furry and cute, dogs provide invaluable services to human beings. Whether it's leading the blind, sniffing out drugs, or finding lost loved ones, The Early Show resident veterinarian, Debbye Turner reports these working canines must have a firm foundation.

Before service dogs are ready for specialized training, they need to learn the basics, like be housebroken, how to sit and stay. So they are raised by "foster owners" for the first year or so of their lives.

One innovative program in New York State has put these puppies behind bars, literally to give them a solid start, and some inmates a new outlook.

At the Armory, these puppies spend all week learning how to become guide and bomb-sniffing dogs. But on the weekend, New York City volunteers help these service-dogs-in-training get used to the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life.

Doug Lasdon is fostering 10-month-old Labrador retriever named Corcoran.

"They need to come out and learn what traffic is and learn what elevators and learn what assorted people and stores," Lasdon explains.

Since he works long hours during the week, it's not practical for him to have his own dog. So fostering a puppy for the weekend is ideal.

"It's a wonderful situation for me," he says.

Corcoran spends his weekends in the lap of urban luxury, but his weekdays are much different. Even though he's broken no laws, committed no crimes, Corcoran spends Monday through Friday in prison.

He lives at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York State with Luis Escalera. Here, inmates are raising dogs from the age of eight weeks to 18 months old as a part of a program appropriately named Puppies Behind Bars.

"Puppies Behind Bars trains inmates to raise guide dogs for the blind, and explosive detection law canines, for law enforcement," explains Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who runs the program. She says using inmates as puppy raisers makes perfect sense.

"The inmates have not only the time, but they've got the need to do something right. They pour themselves into these dogs," Stoga says.

The program requires the inmates to attend hours of classroom instruction, pass tests and even write essays.

Stoga says, "They teach them their names. They teach them to go to the bathroom outside. They housebreak them. And they bond with them. Without exaggeration, they dedicate every waking hour to the dog. And I'm not kidding."

In essence, it is like having a child. Escalera notes, "It's just like when a child gets hurt, you got to check him."

Escalera and all the inmate puppy raisers must have a sterling disciplinary record for at least 12 months before entering the program.

Assistant Deputy Superintendent Jim Hayden says, "Some guys are in here for drugs, some for murder, some for robbery. We have a strict screening process for putting guys in the program." He says the inmates get back as much as they give.

Hayden says, "I think they learn to love something a lot more than they're used to. A lot of these guys come from broken homes"

One inmate notes, "This program has changed me a lot. It took the bitterness out. Thinking of something else, other than myself."

And when it is time to send the dogs to the next stage of training (on the outside), the inmates say they feel great pride and some other emotions one might not expect from hardened criminals.

"I don't care. The strongest guy in here's going to get that lump in his throat," an inmate says.

Even though the dogs go away, they leave behind some very important lessons.

One inmate says, "It's a way of giving back to society - some of the things we've done, and things that I've done to society. I really want to raise my dogs, so that my dog goes out there and helps somebody."

Two Puppies Behind Bars graduates protected the Prudential building in Jersey City, N.J., after the recent terror alert increase. And one puppy has been selected to serve as a bomb-sniffing dog for the Royal Thai Police. Stoga noted that every inmate who has participated in the program, then has been released, has stayed out of trouble and out of jail.
  • Tatiana Morales

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