America’s VetDogs Trains Service Dogs in Massachusetts Prisons
America’s VetDogs loves to put puppies in prison. But it’s not what you think: VetDogs uses its Prison Puppy Program to bring service dogs to injured or disabled veterans.
“Our mission is to improve the quality of lives for those who have served our country honorably,” says CEO Wells Jones. “More specifically, we provide assistance dogs—guide, service, and hearing—to veterans, active military, and others who have served the country honorably.”
So where does prison fit in? VetDogs outsources some of its training to inmates, who stay with the dogs 24/7 until they are about 16 months old and ready to be placed with a veteran. Each dog is carefully assigned to the appropriate person, based on the veteran’s specific needs—vision impairments versus physical disabilities, for example—and lifestyle.
“Everybody wins in this. The inmates love it because they have this opportunity to be with this wonderful animal and share the companionship of that,” Jones says. “For us, we have a 24-hour-a-day trainer. They do an amazing job.”
VetDogs works with four prisons in Massachusetts: MCI Framingham, Old Colony Correctional Center, South Middlesex Correctional Center, and Pondville Correctional Center. Sheila O’Brien, who is VetDogs’ director of external relations and works closely with the Massachusetts prison programs, says the institutions are actually perfect places to train a future guide dog.
“Puppies thrive in prison because they’re exposed to so much,” she says. “They’re exposed to sights and sounds of a city without traffic and et cetera.” (To temper that experience, the dogs are also taken in by foster families on some weekends, to familiarize them with at-home life.)
The concept of puppies in prisons is actually nothing new. In 1981, a nun called Sister Pauline first placed dogs in prisons, as a way for inmates to gain practical skills, like grooming and training, that they could use to find post-incarceration employment. Some years later, O’Brien helped implement the guide dog program in Massachusetts, as a way to benefit both inmates and veterans.
“My objective was to place more dogs with disabled people,” she remembers. “Instead of using shelter animals, we used 8-week-old puppies and we placed the puppies in prison, and from there it just grew and grew and grew.”
The reason the prison system is effective, Jones says, is the same reason guide dogs in general are effective: dogs and people simply make a dynamic partnership.
“Dogs are just naturally paired with people. It’s a wonderful mutually symbiotic relationship that happens,” he says. “They care for each other. These are not just companions, but true assistants that work with the person throughout the day.”