Dogs are being trained specifically for veterans behind prison walls and it is wonderful
In some prisons around the country, inmates are training and preparing service dogs for placement with veterans who need them. Recently, we had the honor of visiting one of these programs at MCI Framingham in Massachusetts, and we were moved by the work being done there. We have had the pleasure of visiting other Planet Dog Foundation grantees but this one was unlike anything we had seen before.
This remarkable program is run by America’s VetDogs, which was created in 2003 by The Guide Dog Foundation in response to an increased need for specially trained dogs to assist disabled veterans returning from the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. America’s VetDogs is a fantastic organization that was previously the recipient of a Planet Dog Foundation grant. We love the opportunity to see where your donation dollars go in the community. Part of every Planet Dog purchase goes to the Planet Dog Foundation so we can give grants like these to reputable organizations like America’s VetDogs.
Superintendent Paul Henderson welcomed us to the facility where we met with his staff and the program coordinators from America’s VetDogs. We learned about the program, the facility, and just what a role this prison program plays in the lives of the inmates and to the veterans who will receive the trained service dog. As we entered, we also met Kent, a disabled veteran and his service dog, Mike. Mike was trained at MCI Framingham.
MCI Framingham is a medium-security women’s facility in Massachusetts, where they've operated a prison dog training program for several years. Laura Galvini, a correctional program officer, was our host for the day and part of the program since its inception. She said there are about 500 women in the facility. There are currently 18 dogs in the program. They have never had a negative incident or issue.
Throughout his career, Superintendent Henderson has had personal experience with several different prison programs, and he says that the prison dog program in particular is a win, win, win. The dogs get expertly trained, the prisoners learn skills they can take pride in while giving back to society, and America’s VetDogs gets a service dog who is ready for advanced training back at their campus. Once fully trained, the dogs will provide veterans assistance with daily living activities, companionship, and emotional support while giving them back their independence.
Kent and Mike are a dynamic duo who directly benefited from the program at MCI Framingham, and we were honored to hear about their experiences. Kent is a disabled veteran, and Mike, a handsome and proud Labrador, is his service dog. Kent was paired with Mike last June by America’s VetDogs, and before that Mike was trained in this very prison – and we got to see just how beloved Mike is by all when our tour became a sort of reunion. Mike is a celebrity behind these walls. The staff and inmates know him and were excited to have him back. Mike grew up with them in prison, and then went on to his purpose: to care for Kent.
Kent lost his identity, his confidence, and his independence when he was medically discharged from service. He suffers from depression. He lost his driver’s license because of seizures. Mike is Kent's second service dog from America’s VetDogs, and he not only helps Kent with basic tasks, Mike can also get help if Kent has a seizure by pulling an alarm Kent carries or pressing a special button to call an ambulance if they’re at home. Mike can also wake Kent from nightmares and helps keep his PTSD in check. Kent and Mike are a team and are there for each other – no questions asked, no matter what. Kent still has his medical issues but wants to be in this world and to give back. Having a service dog like Mike has given Kent his life back and has given it a new purpose.
Kent has now has dedicated his life to paying it forward to make sure other men and women like him get the dogs and care they need so that they don’t become a statistic. Depression, PTSD, and suicide among veterans is a serious problem. But with service dogs like Mike, disabled veterans like Kent can have the courage and ability to leave their houses and be a part of their world again. They can do simple tasks we generally take for granted, and they can sleep at night without fear thanks to the companionship of their trained service dog.
When the time came for us to meet Mike’s former handler it was hard to not be emotional. She was so excited to see him, and so quick to remark on how good he looked and how much he had grown up since leaving her. After her reunion with Mike, she immediately turned her attention to Kent. She emotionally thanked him for his service and for what he had done for our country. She is currently working with a new dog that will go on to another veteran who needs him, too.
As we know, the unconditional love of a dog is unlike anything we have felt before and can change all of us. That love reminds us of hope, respect, and purpose. It is a blind love. Dogs want to please us. Consider for a moment what that love can do for a veteran and for a prisoner. Being a trainer in this program takes professionalism and discipline. It is intense work and a serious responsibility. It takes and fosters love and trust. The inmate trainers are proud of the work they do, they understand the ‘why’ of the program, where these dogs are going and who they will be helping, and that helps with the feelings of loss when it is time for these dogs to leave for their new homes.
The Prison Dogs
At just 8 to 10 weeks old, puppies are brought into the program to begin their training and start their lives as service dogs. Groups of puppies are staggered, so that the puppies can learn from their handlers but also from their elders, who lead by example. The service dog training program managers look for dogs with excellent temperament, health, intelligence, and the ability to be trained – specifically working with Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Lab/Golden crosses.
The prison program service dogs are trained to help people with disabilities other than visual impairment: they can provide balance for walking; pick up dropped items; open doors; turn on light switches; and so much more. In many cases, the prison program trains these dogs for veterans with PTSD, so these service dogs provide not only basic service dog tasks, but can also can wake someone suffering from night terrors, provide a calming effect, and lower stress and anxiety in daily situations, helping veterans overcome a sense of isolation and giving them the ability to re-engage with society on their terms. While they're in training, the service dogs also leave the prison every weekend and stay with puppy raiser families who socialize and acclimate them to other situations and environments to learn about things they’re not exposed to in the prison.
Because the training is constant behind the walls of the prison, the service dogs are trained in about half the time of other similar programs. After the dogs leave the prison program, they're put into advanced specialized training to fit the needs of the veteran they are being placed with, which could include working with wheelchairs, or waking from night terrors. With more working and training time, the dogs get through the program faster and are able to be placed more quickly with awaiting veterans who need them – and there's currently a 3- to 6-month wait for a dog in this program. When placed, the service dogs trained in the prison program are then given to veterans absolutely free of charge thanks to the generous support from the VetDogs donor community.
The win, win, win of this program is really exponential. There are so many benefits to this program – from all angles. It's taken us a while to unpack all of our experiences from this recent visit, and we're honored that MCI Framingham and America’s VetDogs invited us to see the program in action. The staff from both organizations are so passionate about the benefits of programs like this. The women at the prison training the dogs were absolute professionals who were so proud of the work they are doing for veterans and dogs. Kent and Mike are amazing champions for the benefits of having a service dog and of programs like these.
The power of the love of dogs - and for dogs - has always driven Planet Dog and the Planet Dog Foundation to do the work we do. That same force, unconditional love, is also saving lives all over the world. In this facility, on this day, we heard dozens of examples, and we could not be more proud of everyone involved.
Thank you a thousand times for your service and for truly inspiring us.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you would like to support America’s Vet Dogs, you can:
- Share this post
- Like America’s VetDogs on Facebook
- Help spread the word of the good work they are doing
- Make a financial contribution via their website
- Sponsor a puppy (at $6,000 you even get to name the puppy), a class, or a team
- Learn about more ways to show your support on their website
We'd like to generously thank:
- America’s VetDogs for not only their amazing organization but also their willingness to be our partner and help us learn more about the importance of this program.
- MCI Framingham for letting us tour their facility and meet their staff and trainers.
- Kent and Mike for joining us on this day. We learned so much from them about the benefits of having a service dog, and being there for Mike’s reunion was a very moving moment for us. You can keep following Kent’s journey on his personal blog.
- Kevin Ouellette from Amazing DJ Music Sound & Photography for visually capturing the heart of this program.