An unlikely alliance forms behind barbed wires, razor-wire fences, and the cold walls of the state prison at Pine Grove. Eight inmates at the maximum-security lockup and a quartet of puppies are forming a touching and heartfelt bond.
Day or night, some of the state’s toughest young offenders are almost never without their pups by their sides.
They are participating in a program to train the four Labrador Retriever puppies as service dogs for the disabled. The program is called “TAILS” or “train, assist, inspire, loyal service.”
The program started at the Indiana County prison, where most of the 1,163 inmates are between the ages of 14 and 21 and serving sentences for serious crimes. The youngest are there because they were convicted of adult crimes, but can’t be housed in adult prisons under the law.
A Dog’s Life
A dog sleeps in a crate inside a cell shared by their two trainers
The last names of the inmates chosen for the project have been withheld by the Department of Corrections, but Stephen, a 23-year-old boy who began serving a life sentence in 2008 for killing a 50-year-old man, talks freely about how he thinks the program has given him the chance to do something good.
“I figured it’d be good to give back to the community,” he said.
Stephen and another inmate spend all day, every day, working and playing with their dog, Milton.
“He’s definitely smart; he picks up on things pretty quick,” he said. Stephen is paid 42 cents an hour for 8 hours of work per day for his time spent with Milton.
“The inmates are giving 100 percent and taking full advantage of this opportunity because it’s a chance for them to give back and they’re taking it to heart,” said Lori Breece, program manager for United Disabilities Services.
The four Lab pups arrived in April under the tutelage of United Disability Services and Doug Russell, a prison housing unit manager who helped develop the program.
“I liked their mission and the fact that all their dogs are placed in Pennsylvania,” he said.
The future service dogs will be received by people with mobility issues, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder or to long-term nursing care faciliities to be used as therapy dogs.
“This is a chance to see some good things happen and have positive interaction with the staff,” Russell said.
The inmates give pieces of kibble and offer praise to coach the dogs. The four-legged trainees wear red vests indicating they’re service dogs in training.
The two-person team follows a schedule to train the dogs.
Throughout the day, after following their routine and protocols, the inmates can take the dogs to the grassy yard so the animals can relieve themselves or play.
The dogs and their handlers are reviewed by counselors Tara Marhefka and Tammy Delosh n routine.
Marhefka and Delosh gather the inmates and their dogs in a circle and show each other what they can do!
Each handler takes turns guiding the pups over short hurdles with an “over” command. Then they “touch” a block on the wall where the inmates point, and bark to “say hello” as the dog puts its head between a seated inmate’s knees.
Solomon, a yellow Lab, hesitantly follows the “roll” command after some extra prompting by one of his handlers. He nudges the dog’s nose before the pup rolls over onto his belly.
“He’s trying to outsmart you,” Marhefka said.
Milton, a chocolate Lab, touched the wall so well that another handler said that he was a showoff.
Somerset, a black Lab, and Deora, a chocolate Lab, were named by Russell in honor of United Airlines Flight 93 and one of its victims, DeoraBodley.
The Selection Process
Russell led a six-month process to pick the handlers. The process included questionnaires and interviews to make sure none of them had signs of violence against children or animals.
Ryan,Milton’s other handler, said it had been 13 years since he had touched a dog before the program.
“Dogs just make people happy in general,” he said. “It’s a familiar thing from home that makes people feel comfortable.”
Stephen said being a responsible handler for Milton in his cell was difficult at first, but now he’s grown attached to him.
“Jail can be a stressful place and having someone to pet and someone who wants your attention” helps ease the tension, he said.
She found out that inmates experience stress relief and learn responsibility while filling the need for volunteers with the training organizations.
“It seems to me the benefits outweigh the risks institutionally,” Britton said.
In Pennsylvania, corrections officials have seen the positive effects of the program, according to spokeswoman Sue Bensinger.
“The canine programs are amazing in the transformation they provide to the inmate handler and to the dog,” she said. “The inmates teach the dogs social skills, and the inmates learn to work with other handlers to accomplish that task.”
Image and article source: TribLive