Monday marked the beginning of new relationships between canines and companions through a newly implemented program at SCI Pine Grove prison.
Inmates at the prison in White Township have the chance to give back to the community now through a “pups in prison training” program called TAILS (Train, Assist, Inspire, Loyal, Service).
Four puppies have been placed in the facility through United Disabilities Services based in Lancaster. Over the next 18 months, the puppies will be trained by eight inmates. Following the program, the hope is that these dogs will be placed in homes with people with disabilities, people with limited mobility, children with autism, or with military veterans.
The dogs will spend all day and night with the inmates, working with them and sleeping in crates in their cells, and then will be released over the weekend to DOC staff members.
Over the past few months, the staff at the facility as well as the inmates have been working hard preparing for the arrival of the 8-week-old pups. Two of the facilities’ corrections counselors, Tara Marchetka and Tammy Delosh, have spent time in Lancaster learning how to teach the inmates as well as other staff members how to properly work with the dogs.
The dogs’ handlers have been through training two to three times per week in anticipation of the puppies’ arrival.
The training will continue two to tree times per week throughout the program.
The dogs are all Labrador retrievers — a black Lab named Somerset, a yellow Lab named Solomon and two chocolate Labs named Milton and Deora.
Deora was the only puppy named by the SCI Pine Grove staff, who requested that she be named in honor of Deora Bodley, a 20-year-old college student who “loved animals” and who was on Flight 93 on 9/11.
Monday was the first day that the dogs’ handlers met the puppies. Until that point, they had only seen photos of their future companions.
“We’ve been preparing for months,” said Milton’s handler, who did not identify himself. He’s excited to “be able to help out and give back” to the community. Since he has family members who are disabled, he understands the need for these animals in the community.
After the initial meet and greet, they went right to work.
During the dogs’ first-ever training with their designated handlers, they worked on the “Eye Contact Game,” a training exercise in which the goal is to get the dog to look away from their treat. The hope is for the dog to always have eye contact with its handler, according to Marchetka.
The program is something that’s been in the works for a while. Representatives from UDS and SCI Pine Grove began interacting about 18 months ago.
“First, we looked at what different programs were out there and what people were doing,” said Doug Russell, a unit manager at SCI Pine Grove who coordinated the program. “I wanted to get into something long-term that would directly benefit the state of Pennsylvania.”
He explained that all of the training that will be done at the facility, in this initial program as well as in puppy-training programs to come, will meet the needs of people with disabilities specifically in Pennsylvania.
This kind of training program isn’t new to the state of Pennsylvania. In the state as well as the East Coast region, similar programs, in which puppies are brought in to correctional facilities for training, already exist.
According to Lori Breece, service dogs program manager at UDS, a situation like this, where a trainer has almost all of his or her time to commit to the dog, is ideal.
“This is a good opportunity,” she said. “The inmates are going to have a lot more time to focus on their puppy … they won’t have the distractions that puppy-training homes have. I think we’re going to see success from that.”
Generally, Breece said, two out of four puppies successfully complete training programs and are placed in homes for people with disabilities. The ones that don’t finish the program, though, still have a place as companion dogs.
Throughout the program, the Veterinary Clinic of Indiana will donate its services, including health checks, vaccines and spays and neuters for the animals.
Two of the four puppies, Somerset and Solomon, have been sponsored by Keller Bros., Ford Family of Dealerships, in Lancaster, at more than $3,000 per sponsorship. UDS is looking for sponsors for Deora and Milton.
The dogs will learn skills that include undressing a human, turning lights on and off, and carrying and retrieving items, just to name a few.
On the weekends, what Breece “would like to see happen” is for the dogs to be socialized in public. They’ll go home with SCI Pine Grove staff members, and be taken to ordinary places such as grocery stores, malls, doctors’ offices and churches to get accustomed to the settings in which they may find themselves.
Visiting a church, she said, is really important “because a dog in church must learn to lie down and be quiet throughout the sermon.”
It’s also important that throughout the program the puppies interact with children outside the facility, in case they are placed with a child after the program.
When the 18-month training is complete at SCI Pine Grove, they’ll head back to Lancaster where they’ll work one-on-one with a highly trained handler for another six months to learn what Breece called “fine-tune training.” That’s when they’ll be able to match the skills of the dog with the program’s waiting list of homes.
Breece hopes that at the end of the program, they’ll be able to provide the inmates with a photo of the dogs placed in their new homes that will prove the worth of their “18 months of hard work and effort.”
“It’s important to have the full circle of the program,” Breece said, “for (the inmates) to realize that what they’re doing has benefited someone in the community.
“They seem like a nice group of guys … they’re ready to do this.”
Russell and Breece both are hopeful that the program will become a continuing operation within the facility.
Somerset’s handler said that the program will help (the inmates) in more ways than one.
“It’ll help us become a better person … teaching things like patience.
“It’s a blessing just to have this experience. I’ve been in jail a long time … now I can give back to the community.”