4 Paws has prisons in Ohio and Kentucky are working with us to help raise and train service dogs in training. In this win-win program, inmates are raising and training service dogs in training. The inmates are able to devote time 24/7 to the dogs in their care. Many of our inmates have been with us for years and are skilled dog trainers, some even specializing is specific dg behaviors a certain dog may need to work on.
In order to be selected as dog handlers, the inmates must work with their prison to see if they meet the criteria to join the 4 Paws program. They must have acceptable behavioral records while they have been in the prison system and certain offences are not accepted such as domestic violence, child abuse, animal abuse, and or sex offences such as rape as research shows people incarcerated for these offences could put the dogs at risk.
We call this program a win-win situation for all!
- Inmates have told us they feel they will be more prepared to return to their families having learned patience and bonding from their partnership with the dog.
- With the help of our prisons and inmates more dogs can be trained and placed!
- The inmate has a chance to give back while at the same time learning a valuable skill that they can use to gain employment when released.
- Many of the prisons report that having the dog program has helped some inmates get their lives together in order to participate.
- Many of our prisons have reported that the dog even benefits the staff through fuzz therapy!
Our program at EKCC is unique. The inmates here work with the Mom dogs and their litters of puppies. Here is a great article written about this unique and important program!
The compound resembles an old coal mill or factory surrounded by high fencing with barbed wire. Housed in the middle of Eastern Kentucky far from large cities and nestled in a small town, one might drive by and never realize a large men’s prison lay within. We were going to meet with a woman who had a vision. Now I know all about women with visions, so I was excited to meet with her. Her excitement was evident from the initial handshake. As she talked about her prison and the inmates within, I heard a sense of pride and genuine caring absent in the staff of many similar institutions today. They are people. They have basically lost their lives due to mistakes made, sometimes in their youth. They have no hope and many have no reason to go on every day. It is important to bring back to them a pride in themselves and to give them every means and opportunity to improve themselves. Mostly, she talked about treating them as human beings who can have a future outside of EKCC (Eastern Kentucky Correctional Facility). Remember, these men will reenter society, they will live in our towns beside our families, our kid’s families, our friends and neighbors. We want them to make this reentry successfully and to go on to live a more productive life than the one that landed them here.
She took us on a tour. Inmates came up to her frequently. It was easy to see that she lived the words she had spoken to us. The inmates talked to her freely and respectfully. They greeted her as we passed by. She held such pride in her prison and we were amazed at how well it ran. We noticed immediately the quietness. Many prisons that we visit are loud with inmates talking and yelling. This prison was quiet and peaceful, you might think you were on a college campus had the scenery not included locked doors and guards. When we entered the wing she most wanted us to see, immediately guys flocked to us. “Are you the people with the dogs?” “Please bring us dogs! We will take great care of them.” They wanted to tell us about their dogs at home and with sadness spoke of the last time they felt the warm compassion of a dog laying beside them. The longer we stood there you heard the quiet wave go through the building, the dog people are here! The inmates told us how good their prison was and how well they could care for the dogs. They showed us a large grassy area which Kathy Litteral (Warden and the women with a vision) piped up could be completely fenced in for our dogs. Their excitement was contagious!
We left part of her vision and began to work with her to breathe life into EKCC 4 Paws Puppy Enrichment Program. It took almost a year for her to navigate the ins and outs of introducing a new program to a prison. They fenced the yard and bought equipment. We met and went over criteria for inmates interested in being in the “Puppy Wing” at EKCC. They worked to identify staff to run the program within the prison and to screen and identify appropriate inmates. Here at 4 Paws, we had our own planning meetings. Erin Bittner, Director of Genetics and Socialization, was tasked with creating a puppy enrichment manual outlining the critical daily activities that must take place each day of the new puppy’s life to prepare them for life as a service dog. We had to decide on an appropriate age for them to leave 4 Paws, settling on 2 weeks. We had to take into consideration how we would work with the Guardian homes who were used to having their mama dogs at 4 Paws, when they now would be three hours away and not readily accessible. How would having young puppies in prison go over in the 4 Paws social network? How do we market it and educate people on this win/win situation?
4 Paws is not new to housing service dogs with prison inmates. In fact, we were housing them in prison almost from the very beginning. I’m not good on dates but would say we have been using prisons for 16 of our 20 years. We started with shelter dogs having the inmates rehabilitate them and those dogs who did well were used as service dogs. When we started looking for pregnant shelter dogs, hoping that the puppies being raised from us by day one would have a better success rate, a women’s prison housed, whelped, and raised them for us. As the program changed and we developed our own breeding program we got away from this practice and all puppies were whelped and raised here in our very extensive puppy enrichment program and left for prison only after completion. Inmates have been an instrumental part of our volunteer base. They work hard with our puppies and young dogs teaching house manners and basic obedience and we are thrilled to be a part of such an innovative and heartwarming program.
Over the years I have met many inmates who I was able to get to know. I learned their life stories. I heard about their children at home and the events that led to their incarceration. It is easy to sit outside the prison walls and imagine hardened criminals behind them. People we would think we would never want to see outside those walls again. While there are indeed such people in prison, people who have committed heinous crimes who should never step foot in the free world again, 90% are just people who made mistakes, acted impulsively, and engaged in behavior that was illegal. One such inmate, Eddie, has his story in our book, “The Underdogs” by Melissa Faye Green. A man who in his youth was bullied. A man that to this day looks like a wisp of a guy who might be a librarian if he were out. It’s hard to look at him and imagine he did anything to be behind bars. A man who did not commit the crime but participated in the after crime clean up in fear of the bully who had been protecting him from all the other bullies. I have met men who committed crimes as youth, impulsive and too young to make good decisions and now their adult lives are gone. Sometimes, I meet people that are “there but for the grace of God go I”. One inmate had a drink with dinner and was involved in an accident in which someone died and was sentenced to years in prison. How many times do people drink socially and drive never thinking that something like this could happen because they were not drunk?
As I got to know the inmates, I learned to love our prison program, coined “Mission Pawsible” even more. I grew fond of the inmates and my desire to help them be a part of the 4 Paws Magic grew. Everyone deserves to have someone who believes in them. Entering a relationship with EKCC and joining with a woman who lived her vision with excitement and devotion to making a difference was an easy decision. I was of course excited as the day came to move in. We sent two of our staff to do an intensive 5 day workshop with the inmates who made the cut and gained acceptance into this new and exciting program. Erin and Cristina headed to prison not knowing quite what to expect as neither has played a role on the “inside” as we call it. The texts we got daily showed just how contagious Kathy’s vision and devotion to the program was. The inmates won their hearts and on the day the puppies arrived there were tears all around as inmates were handed the new precious lives we were entrusting them with. After the week Erin made a post of her experience that sums this all up and I share it with you now.
“Last week I went to launch our newest Prison Program at Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty, Kentucky. This program is very different from our other 4 programs as we are bringing in entire litters with their mommas well before weaning. This changes the obvious primary focus from obedience (while they have been working so hard at that already!) to love and care! So many of these inmates at EKCC have already started to change their mindset, putting their puppies needs ahead of their own. Whether that is a bath, a potty break, their next meal, or even to check out the reflection in the glass that they just noticed for the first time.
I was there with Cristina for 5 days and each day another one of my doubts/worries started to fade as my class of 26 inmates became more passionate, more engaged with the information I was presenting to them! Those of you who know me, know how passionately I feel about our program here at 4 Paws, especially the endless possibilities of our Puppy Enrichment Program when carried out to its full potential. By Thursday I was exuding pure JOY at the endless possibilities of this new program at EKCC! The guys made it clear that they also felt my hope and excitement through heartfelt and sometimes tear filled thank-you’s.
Over the 5 days we received many simple thanks that almost stopped me in my tracks that would linger with me. Some that still are hanging out on my mind, “thank you for treating us like humans”, “I feel human again.”, “I now look forward to the days ahead whereas before I dreaded everyday.”, “the fact of knowing that someone is entrusting me with the care and training of puppies, it gives me hope for the future that I can become a trusted member of society again.”, “this is the greatest opportunity that I could have wished for”, “Thank you for the opportunity to make a positive impact on someone’s life.”, “thank you for this opportunity to feel important again, and trusted.”
There were so many times during the week that I got chills when I saw the hope and pride that these guys saw in their puppies! I am so glad that I was able to show them my passion for our program and instill some of that passion and excitement in them. I ended the week feeling so on top of the world and blessed to have been such a blessing in their lives. I am so excited for what this program will do in their lives, both the humans and puppies alike!! I can’t wait to see what impact this foundation will have on these puppies’ futures as service dogs!
For those of you who are a part of the 4 Paws family I would love to take in thank you letters, words of encouragement, pictures, and videos that capture the heart of 4 Paws! That will give them the fuel to be energized in the good times and know it’s still worth it in the hard times!”
A little more than a year after the initial meeting with Kathy, I returned to EKCC to meet the inmates involved and see the puppy program in action. What a privilege and a wonder to see! We were greeted by staff who were eagerly awaiting the second litter of puppies we were bringing with us. Of course, everyone obligingly took in the supplies first while trying to gain glimpses of the new babies. As we started handing out puppies the smiles could be felt across the yard! It was pretty clear the inmates were not the only benefactors of the magic puppies bring with them everywhere they go. We worked our way through the expansive prison finally exiting to the area that house the newly fenced dog “park” at EKCC. Inmates were all out in the sunshine playing with the puppies who were already there and many had gathered to be one of the first to hold the new puppies. I brought with me a special treat, Aiko who was immediately surrounded by inmates and staff asking about her expansive ears. I will let Aiko tell you about her visit in her own column. The sheer joy that one would never expect to find within prison walls was amazing.
As with visits to other prisons, inmates began to approach me and tell me how much the program meant to them. One showed me pictures of his daughter who was only one when he was incarcerated. A beautiful young lady whose mother had died and was living with relatives. Others told me about their dogs at home and their dog experiences. One young man had been in prison since the age of 16 years. Everyone expressed gratitude and true compassion for the program. I saw puppies at 6 weeks of age doing obedience commands. They were excited to show off their accomplishments. Staff stopped by to get an emotional uplifting by holding a puppy for a few minutes, so they felt rejuvenated and ready to continue their shift. My heart beamed with pride for them. My heart beamed with pride for 4 Paws. We love to break boundaries and share the magic. I am proud of our agency for the care and compassion we give to others not just in our placement of service dogs but in all aspects of our existence as an organization.