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Count Us In: NEADS Partners with Local Prisons to Train Assistance Dogs

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

 

Inmates train the dogs to accomplish tasks that their future partners will ask of them.

GoLocalWorcester presents a special series brought to you by Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. This series will highlight some of the most unique partnerships in Central Mass and reinforce the message of Harvard Pilgrim's "Count Us In" campaign: "Amazing things happen when people work together."

The National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) based in West Boylston is partnering with correctional facilities to provide training for dogs to become partners for blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled persons.

As part of the Prison Pup Partnership, inmates at 13 correctional facilities volunteer to give their time and effort over a 12-18 month period to extensively train dogs to accomplish the tasks necessary to provide needed services to their eventual disabled partners.

This unique partnership between prison and non-profit has been a blessing for NEADS since the partnership's inception at the North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner in 1998.

"We can train more assistance dogs more quickly and provide more dogs to more people," says John Moon, Director of Programs and Communications for NEADS. "It has been a very successful program."

To put the demand for assistance dogs in perspective, NEADS typically has a waiting list of 80 to 85 potential clients.

A Vital Service

NEADS provides a vital service that helps a wide-range of persons with different disabilities from the hearing impaired, to those relegated to wheelchairs, to veterans who may have lost limbs in combat.

"Trained Assistance Dogs can warn the deaf of an emergency, for instance, if they hear an alarm or a baby crying. Some can pull socks or shoes off for those that may not be able to, or even open the fridge to grab a bottle of water for their partner," says Moon. “But perhaps the most important thing is the companionship the dogs provide their partner, giving the human partner peace of mind knowing there is someone by his side that can do what needs to get done. Dogs don't care if you have a disability."

After going through an extensive background check and interview process, the selected inmates are trained by supervisors from NEADS on how to train and treat the puppy during their time together. The "handlers" selected are model prisoners with exceptional records. Back-up handlers are also chosen in case the primary handler has to drop out.

The dogs that graduate from the Prison Pup Partnership are typically trained at a higher level, and complete the training quicker than those puppies trained in foster homes. This is because the inmate handlers are able to devote more time and energy to the training.

The training mostly involves positive reinforcement and repetition, helping the dogs learn everyday tasks. Most importantly, the puppies learn to become exceptionally obedient. In addition, they learn to socialize with human beings. The puppy and prisoner spend most of their time together; they go to recreational areas, visit the dining hall, and go to classes.

A Win-Win Situation

The puppy lives and sleeps with the handler in his special room designed to fit the needs of the handler and the dog. Just as dogs don't care if a person is disabled, neither do they care if a person is an inmate.

Indeed, NEADS and their potential clients are not the only ones that directly benefit from the Prison Pup Partnership. The inmates do as well.

"According to the guards, they see a level of humanity brought to the prison population that did not exist before,” says Moon. “The puppies have a calming influence, and they give the inmates a sense of responsibility and purpose.”

Diane Wiffin, the Director of Public Affairs for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, agrees.

"It is a win-win situation for everyone involved in the Prison Pup Partnership,” says Wiffin. “Inmates learned to be responsible and concerned for others, skills that will serve them well upon release."

In addition, Wiffin notes, there may also be an important practical benefit in the program for the inmates.

"Upon release, the former inmate may be able to find jobs involving dog training."

There are usually 6 to 8, and sometimes as many as 12, puppies in every facility at a given time. 11 of 13 correctional facilities are part of the program are in Massachusetts.

For more information, click here, or visit the Department of Corrections' website here.

 

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