Prison Puppies... UNLEASHED

What benefits come out of the Prison Puppy Program? How can inmates be selected to take care of puppies? What tools are inmates equipped with to train the puppies to become service dogs?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Jeff Kovar | Strategic Account Executive

Dogs are a man’s best friend, especially to the individuals who rely on their dogs to help them with everyday tasks. Professionally trained service dogs don’t appear out of thin air. They go through rigorous training to become dogs that help serve those who served our country. From whom are the trainers the puppies learn from? You guessed it: inmates. This blog will discuss how correctional institutions around the country host Prison Puppy Programs, allowing inmates to train puppies who will eventually become service dogs for people in need. 

Correctional institutions all across the country host rehabilitation programs to help inmates prepare for life outside of jail or prison. These classes can include literacy classes, parenting classes, library services, adult continuing education, etc. Inmates find these classes as great opportunities to prepare for life when they’re released from the facility and be able to adapt to society norms more quickly. One of the most popular programs offered to a limited number of prisons across the country teaches the responsibility of caring for and raising a baby animal: the Prison Puppy Program. 

Three organizations for example, (America’s VetDogs, NEADS World Class Service Dogs, and Patriot Paws Service Dogs) each host their own specific Prison Puppy Program in various locations across the country. Whether their dogs are raised to eventually become service dogs for wounded veterans or people with general disabilities, all the programs follow similar training guidelines.   

Model Inmates Make Model Puppies

Sounds like a fairly good program to participate in while serving time behind bars! Because of the high interest from inmates that want to be a caretaker, there is a selection process inmates must pass so only specific individuals are carefully chosen. Anyone interested in becoming a dog handler is required to submit a letter of intent to a liaison which is reviewed by social workers, case managers, psychology, custody, and program staff, additionally have acceptable behavioral records, and must pass an intelligence screening. The prison liaison selects who they deem to be appropriate inmate handlers, which are usually described as “model inmates” with exceptional records by the facility staff. But sometimes that’s not even enough; there are some organizations that also require additional interviews from their internal staff to ensure that the inmates are right for their program. Needless to say, it’s a competitive program to be accepted into, but worth the process (America’s VetDogs; World Class Service Dogs).

Being in a prison setting allows the dogs to be around many different personalities. You see a nurturing side of the inmates that isn’t always evident to the public.
Kathy Foreman
Director of NEADS Training

Puppies Get Homework, Too?

The puppies are put to work in their very early stages of life. Once they are around eight or nine weeks old, they are transported in groups of three-four and join their specific Prison PUP Program to begin their training. As soon as the puppies arrive, they start basic puppy skills, such as house-breaking and crate training. Although the puppies “live” in their primary handler’s cell, most of the time they spend in the cell is spent sleeping. The majority of the puppies’ days are spent outside the cell, attending classes, programs, and observing recreational activities with their handlers. Certified program instructors travel to the prison facilities at least once a week to conduct classes and provide instructions on how to train the puppies. Handlers are taught basic obedience tips for their service dogs, such as retrieving dropped items, tugging doors open, pushing handicapped door buttons, and providing brace and balance on stairs. In addition, they learn how to groom and properly care for their puppy by providing basic first aid and monitoring canine health. The staff trainers assess each puppy to make training recommendations and assign homework for the handler. Inmates are tested on a quarterly basis using an evaluation form to determine their capability to train the dogs in the fifty-five behaviors required for certification. Inmates that are more advanced in their training become mentors for new inmates entering the program (America’s VetDogs; Patriot Paws Service Dogs; World Class Service Dogs).

It’s a great program on many different levels. It helps you get up every morning with a purpose. Every day you have responsibilities that you can’t just brush off, you need to step up, which has helped me develop into a responsible and conscientious person. Being a part of this program allows me to give back to the community and it has given me a sense of self-worth that I haven’t felt before.
Inmate Dog Handler

Getting Ready for the Real World

Inmates provide the puppies with socialization by bringing the dogs with them whenever possible. Whether going to a medical appointment, the TV lounge, or the family and friends visiting room, the handler usually has the puppy right by his or her side. Frequently visiting new locations helps the puppies become familiar with new surroundings. Some program instructors are even granted permission to bring hats, umbrellas, skateboards, and battery-operated toys into the prison so the puppies can be socialized to “everyday items” that are used outside the facility. When the weekend approaches, puppies go home with a volunteer, who socializes them to car rides, traffic noise, store visits, restaurants, and hospitals so that they will be confident wherever their future veteran partner will go. Once the program instructors feel as if the puppies have grown up and matured appropriately, the dogs then are assessed for final training and client matching. Statistics have shown that prison-raised dogs are typically skilled highly enough that they can go through the final training process in half the normal time of a home-raised dog. With the inmates able to provide consistent training at an elevated level (simply because of the amount of time) they are able to devote most of their time and energy to the dogs. Thus, enabling the program to place dogs faster to people in need (America’s VetDogs; World Class Service Dogs).

The Impact on Inmates and Puppies

The influence each of the Prison PUP Programs has on the inmates is tremendous. Even the officers and inmates who do not participate in the program report that the presence of the puppies changes the atmosphere for everyone. The programs not only train more service dogs for disabled veterans but provide an avenue for inmates to give back to the community during their incarceration. The skill set inmates are taught during this program helps them upon their release back into society as well as reduces the recidivism rate (Patriot Paws Service Dogs; World Class Service Dogs). Jails and prisons can, unfortunately, hold a bad and stereotypical reputation for not allowing enough room to grow or space for rehabilitation. Luckily, the locations that offer opportunities such as the Prison Puppy Program help inmates prepare for the outside world. They are giving back to their community while providing the gift of a service dog to a person in need. 

The NEADS program has benefited the institution tremendously. The inmates involved in the program get a really positive impact from the training and life skills they receive. When the inmates have the opportunity to meet the client who is adopting the puppy, the inmate sees the impact their hard work has had and is proud of providing a positive benefit to someone else. It’s a huge amount of reparation that they feel they can contribute.
Colette Goguen
Superintendent, DOC


America’s VetDogs
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World Class Service Dogs
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Patriot Paws Service Dogs
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YouTube | NEADS Prison PUP Program 20 Year Anniversary (2018).


Four Dogs Graduate from Prison Puppy Program at Osborn Correctional Facility

World Class Service Dogs
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Patriot Paws Service Dogs
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