My First Prison Puppy Class Experience

As we cruised southbound on I-95 towards one of the MD prisons in CPL’s Prison Puppy Raising Program, I had no idea what to expect during my first prison puppy class.

CPL puppies are raised by community volunteers and inmates in eight prisons throughout MD and PA from eight weeks to 15 months. All puppy raisers participate in puppy class twice a month and follow CPL’s First Year Training Curriculum: teaching house manners, basic obedience, and exposing the dogs to public environments.

Each prison has a set of strict guidelines for getting in and remaining in the program. After a lengthy screening process, accepted applicants are matched with a fellow inmate to co-raise a dog. The two inmates share a cell, and the dog goes back and forth between handlers during their daily routines. Early socialization trips are essential to service dogs-in-training, so staff and volunteers take the dogs with them on short errands or overnight trips.

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Tonya, our Demonstration and Education Coordinator, and I tagged along when, Jen, our Puppy Program Coordinator, came down to teach puppy class and swap dogs. As we pulled up to the prison, their friendly staff members greeted us with smiles and helped us unload the month’s supply of dog food we brought with us.

Carrying three little black labs, we exchanged our driver’s licenses for visitor’s badges, walked through the metal detectors, and were weaved through a series of doors and corridors to the visitor’s room. We sat down in our chairs facing a semi-circle of eight enthusiastic puppy trainers, staff members and a volunteer beaming with pride, and four beautifully behaved dogs.

Puppy class typically consists of practicing and reviewing training skills, but this was a unique class since this was their first set of dogs that reached the age to enter the kennel. The men reflected how much their lives have changed since the puppies arrived a year ago. There was laughter. There were tears. But most of all, there was an overwhelming outpour of gratitude filling the room.

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We heard comments like:

  • “The program is fail-proof. It’s all about patience, discipline, and talking with the community. It helps me as much as her.”
  • “She is my best friend.”
  • “This program has given me hope.”
  • “I have a new perspective.”
  • “This dog is a gift.”
  • “I’m serving a life sentence and never thought I’d get a second chance like this.”

Next was homework time. Their previous assignment was a shaping exercise, where they had to teach their dogs to put their right front paw on the blue post-it note on the floor. Shaping is a training method where the dog figures out a behavior on their own without you leading them or forcing them to do something. It is taught in small steps and then all “put together.” It takes a lot of patience and requires the dog to think.

The next assignment brought handlers with puppies back to basics. Their first assignment was to build the foundation through teaching the dogs their names. Once the dogs understand their names and the click and treat method (a method of training that uses a sound to tell the dog they are doing something right), their handlers start on basic commands like sit or stay.

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There was one moment at the end of class that I will never forget. Most of the dogs were chasing each other around the room, and handlers were chatting with each other, except for Jewels and her handler. The rest of the room disappeared around them; he stroked her head as he lay on the ground next to her, whispering how much he was going to miss her. That’s when I fully realized that a service dog changes two lives: the recipient and the puppy raiser.

Before we knew it, the class was over, and faces grew long as leashes returned. Goodbyes were said as we walked the dogs back down the corridor. As we were buzzed back into the lobby, I was reminded of the feeling of high school graduation, the puppy raisers were so proud of everything their dogs have accomplished so far and were excited for the life-changing opportunities in their future.

Photos by Kevin Shields, Richard Weinberg, and Kyle Hudson.

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