Dog-training program gives prison inmates chance to give back
Behind the razor-wire fences and the cold stone walls of the state prison at Pine Grove, the unlikeliest of alliances is taking root between eight inmates at the maximum-security lockup and a quartet of puppies.
Day and night, the inmates — some of the state's toughest young offenders — are seldom without the pups at their sides.
They are joined in a mission to train the four Labrador retriever puppies as service dogs for the disabled in an 18-month program called “TAILS,” which stands for “train, assist, inspire, loyal service.”
The program is in its infancy at the Indiana County prison, where most of the 1,163 inmates are between the ages of 14 and 21 and serving sentences for serious crimes ranging from armed robbery and drug trafficking to murder. The youngest are there because they were convicted of adult crimes but can't be housed in adult prisons under the law.
A dog's life
The dogs live, work and sleep with their two trainers, sharing one tiny cell with the pup, which sleeps in a crate.
The last names of the inmates chosen to train the dogs have been withheld by the Department of Corrections, but Stephen, 23, who began serving a life sentence in 2008 for killing a 50-year-old Elk County man, talks freely about how he believes the program has given him the chance to do something positive.
“I figured it'd be good to give back to the community,” he said.
Stephen and another inmate spend all day, every day working with their dog, Milton.
“He's definitely smart; he picks up on things pretty quick,” he said. For his time spent with Milton, Stephen is paid 42 cents an hour for 8 hours of work per day.
“The inmates are giving 100 percent and taking full advantage of this opportunity because it's a chance for them to give back and they're taking it to heart,” said Lori Breece, program manager for United Disabilities Services, the Lancaster-based group that will place the dogs after they're trained.
The four puppies arrived in April under the guidance of United Disability Services and Doug Russell, a prison housing unit manager who helped develop the program.
“I liked their mission and the fact that all their dogs are placed in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Similar programs are in place at 13 of the 26 state prisons.
The dogs will go to people with mobility issues, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder or to long-term nursing care faciliities to be used as therapy dogs.
“This is a chance to see some good things happen and have positive interaction with the staff,” Russell said.
In their brown jumpsuits and heavy work boots, the inmates gently hold out pieces of kibble and offer praise to coach the dogs that wear red vests indicating they're service dogs in training.
The dogs are seldom out of sight.
Under a shelf where inmates keep toiletries and clothes in their small gray cells, each dog's crate fits snugly between the end of one bed and the door.
Each two-person team of handlers tends to their dog around the clock.
Throughout the day, after checking in with a guard, the inmates can take the dogs to a grassy, open-air yard ringed by a low fence so the animals can relieve themselves or play tug-of-war and catch with toys.
Routinely, the dogs and their handlers are reviewed by counselors Tara Marhefka and Tammy Delosh.
Marhefka and Delosh gather the inmates and their dogs in a circle with some dogs settling comfortably on the white linoleum floor while others stand, waiting their turn to show what they can do.
Each handler takes turns guiding the pups over short hurdles with an “over” command. Then they “touch” a block on the wall where the inmates point, and bark to “say hello” as the dog puts its head between a seated inmate's knees.
Solomon, a yellow lab, reluctantly follows the “roll” command after some extra prompting by one of his handlers, who nudges the dog's nose before the pup lazily rolls over onto his belly.
“He's trying to outsmart you,” Marhefka said.
Milton, a chocolate lab —named after candy magnate Milton Hershey because of his color — touched the wall so well that another handler remarked that he was a showoff.
Somerset, a black lab, and Deora, a chocolate lab, were named by Russell in honor of United Airlines Flight 93 and one of its victims, Deora Bodley, after he heard Bodley's mother speak about the 20-year-old's volunteer work at an animal shelter.
The selection process
Russell led a six-month process to choose the handlers, including questionnaires and interviews to make sure none had signs of violence against children or animals.
Milton's other handler, Ryan, 33, said it had been 13 years since he had touched a dog before the start of the program.
He was convicted in 2003 of aggravated assault and other charges stemming from a shooting outside a diner in York County and is serving 19 1⁄2 to 39 years.
“Dogs just make people happy in general,” he said. “It's a familiar thing from home that makes people feel comfortable.”
Stephen said dealing with the responsibility of having Milton in his cell was difficult at first, but now he's grown attached to him.
“Jail can be a stressful place and having someone to pet and someone who wants your attention” helps ease the tension, he said.
In research published in 2006, Rutgers professor Dana Britton studied Kansas prisons operating similar service-dog programs.
She found inmates experience stress relief and learn lessons in responsibility while filling the need for volunteers with the training organizations.
“It seems to me the benefits outweigh the risks institutionally,” Britton said.
In Pennsylvania, corrections officials have seen the positives of the program, said spokeswoman Sue Bensinger.
“The canine programs are amazing in the transformation they provide to the inmate handler and to the dog,” she said. “The inmates teach the dogs social skills, and the inmates learn to work with other handlers to accomplish that task.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or email@example.com.