Weekend dog trainers a special breed
It's Sunday afternoon and the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Cranston is bustling: guards going into work; guards leaving after a shift; clergy arriving to lead religious services; families wait to pass through the security screening for a visit with their husbands, sons and brothers.Then there are the puppies and things change.They elicit waves and nods from the adults and everything from shy smiles to shrieks of glee from the toddlers and preschoolers. Some dash over to hug or pet a pup, others lean in and hope for a kiss. The pups, happy to be home, usually oblige.The 10 Labrador Retrievers coming in and out of Moran are between 15 weeks and 15 months old, and part of a partnership between the state Department of Corrections and National Education for Assisted Dog Services (NEADS), a Princeton, Mass.-based organization that provides service dogs for deaf and disabled Americans, many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The puppies, often greeted by name by the visitors and guards, are returning home from “furlough” with a volunteer weekend puppy raiser. During the week, the pups live in the prison, matched with an inmate who trains it to be a service dog.
Each inmate spends the week teaching his dog basic obedience and tasks specific to service dogs, such as opening doors, turning on light switches and retrieving dropped items like house keys. In a facility housing more than 1,000 men, the puppies are accustomed to meeting people from different backgrounds, and they spend time in the exercise yard, in classes and in family visits. All of this is great exposure for the dogs, but the puppies also must be comfortable living in a traditional home, learning to ignore the telephone, the UPS guy and the vacuum cleaner. Beyond good manners in the house, a fully-trained service dog will accompany its owner everywhere, and the puppies need to learn everything they’ve been taught by their handler “on the inside” applies whether in a cell, in a shopping mall, or when surrounded by cheering PawSox fans after a home run at McCoy.
Making sure the puppy is confident in the larger world is the job of the weekend puppy raiser, a volunteer who helps the dog generalize what it has learned at Moran to the community at large. The puppy goes to the volunteer's home Friday, and returns Sunday. The weekend puppy raiser and the inmate communicate via a form that details things like when the puppy last ate and pooped, to what, if anything, caused it to bark or whine. The volunteers attend an orientation at NEADS, and are given a manual that details outings, month by month. A weekend with a 15-week-old puppy may consist of four or five short visits to the library or quiet store, while a puppy over 6 months needs to ride subways and buses, take walks on busy streets and quietly remain under the table at coffee shops and restaurants. Rhode Island Law (SECTION 40-9.1-2.1) gives trainers of assistance dogs the same rights and privileges as a person with a disability, allowing the weekend puppy raisers the freedom to take their puppies just about anywhere.
Eve Turner, a weekend puppy raiser from Taunton, Mass., said she had no idea how people would react when she first started taking a puppy, even a well-behaved one, out in public, and braced for resistance or disapproving looks. She was surprised to be embraced. Her neighbors and co-workers keep toys on hand for when the puppy visits. When she calls to schedule appointments, the pharmacist, dentist and mechanic ask if the puppy will be with her.
Renee Benoit, of Old Mystic, Conn., is a new weekend puppy raiser. Her household includes kids and cats, but given their busy work and school schedules, they’d never owned a dog. She has been partnered with Mookie for two-and-a-half months. Mookie spent the first weekend eating dirt and chasing leaves in Benoit’s yard, leaving Benoit to wonder if she was up to the job of helping Mookie develop the right stuff to be a service dog. But Friday after Friday, she greets a dog that is not only larger but also more attentive and aware of its surroundings.
Longtime weekend puppy raiser Colleen Whepley of Providence recognizes this pattern seven years of their experience. She credits the inmate handlers with teaching the puppy to listen and respond to commands like “sit” and “stay.” The pups also learn impulse control, walking alongside the person holding the leash without dashing off to investigate every new smell, and ignoring a full food dish until given permission to eat. Service puppies raised in prison facilities complete training in half the time of puppies fostered in private homes, thanks to the dedication and consistent daily practice the inmate handler provides.
Blaze, whom Turner helped raise from 10 weeks, is now 16 months and fully trained. Blaze will graduate from the NEADS program on April 7, at a ceremony held at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, Mass. Sponsored by the Worcester Fire Department in honor of the six firefighters who lost their lives in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire of 1999, Blaze was placed with Angela Mullally, a school psychologist in Rochester, N.Y. and will help support the social and emotional needs of elementary school students in the school where Mullally works.
Giving up a puppy after spending a year or more watching it grow up is the hardest part. Whepley says, “I won’t lie, I cry like a baby. Every time. But the dog is not mine. They have a job to do. They're very good at their jobs and more importantly, love having a job. And the clients need a service dog to help them with some basic things that I don't even think about.”
Turner agrees. “I cry all the way home after dropping them off at Moran for the last time. But when you see the puppy a few weeks later with their new partner, watch them work together and see the bond they’ve developed – the mutual adoration and respect – well, that completely dissolves any heartache and replaces it with an overwhelming sense of pride that you were a part of making that happen.”
And NEADS has a special way of softening the blow of saying goodbye. While Turner was at NEADS headquarters last month to congratulate Mullally and Blaze on completing their training together, Christy Bassett, a NEADS trainer, introduced Turner to Ricky, an 8-week-old black Lab about to move into Moran for training. After helping to pick out a new collar for him, Turner knew she was smitten. For the next year, Ricky will be at Turner's side on the weekends, as she introduces him to the sights and sounds of New England and helps him learn to be a service dog.
NEADS has partnerships with 10 prisons in New England, including the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Cranston. For more information, visit neads.org/puppyraisers.
Editor's note: Mary Johnson, the author of this article, of Warwick, has been a weekend puppy raiser since 2010. She has helped train three labs. She is now working with Spirit who will be matched (and leave) in late April or early May.