Editor’s note: The state Department of Corrections withheld inmates’ last names for privacy and identification purposes.
Twelve maximum-security inmates, seven community volunteers and five puppies make up the Canine Partners for Life training program at SCI-Greene in Waynesburg.
The nonprofit program enables inmates in Pennsylvania and Maryland to train prospective service dogs for 12 to 18 months inside prison before the pups move on to formal training at the CPL headquarters in Cochranville, Chester County.
After graduating from the two-year program, the service dogs will assist people with physical or mental disabilities. Over the course of its 26-year existence, the organization has placed more than 650 service dogs in 45 states across the United States.
The process begins in Cochranville, where the CPL team breeds, trains and cares for dozens of service dogs a year. At 8 weeks old, the pups are transferred to one of eight prisons in Pennsylvania and two in Maryland.
The group at SCI-Greene meets once every two weeks inside the visitors’ room to train and evaluate the dogs. On a spring day earlier this year, a visitor was given the opportunity to observe training.
Volunteers and CPL trainers arrive first. Erica Seaver-Engel, the head trainer of the CPL program at SCI-Greene, goes over the day’s objectives as the morning light illuminates a beautifully crafted mural painted on the overhead wall. It was completed in March and took inmates more than seven months to create.
At 9 a.m., the inmates begin entering the room. They greet the volunteers and begin prepping their dogs for work. Erica calls everyone to attention and begins the session with some simple walking exercises. Four teams of two stand and begin leading their dogs through a variety of stations set up around the room.
Each dog is assigned to a pair of inmates responsible for its training and care. One is the primary handler while the other is the secondary handler. Dogs live in inmates’ cells and accompany them everywhere throughout the day, including to work, meals, bathroom and sleep.
The dogs react immediately to commands given by their handlers. Treats are placed on the floor to tempt them out of position. No one budges, and the exercise concludes with no mistakes. Expressions of pride and approval can be seen on the inmates’ faces. It is clear they take their work seriously.
The inmates are given permission to participate in the program based on good behavior. The men involved have been convicted of crimes ranging from grand theft to murder and manslaughter. Initially, the program did not have enough volunteer inmates to operate.
“They didn’t have enough people, and just needed me on paper,” said Paul, Cassidy’s handler. “I was hesitant at first, but agreed. Then I saw what the dogs would be doing. That won me over. Never thought I would like it like I do now.”
Each morning the dogs practice commands with their handlers and are expected to pass monthly progress evaluations during training sessions with CPL staff and local volunteers. On this day, Nike, a 4-month-old black Labrador retriever, was up for her four-month evaluation.
“We’re ready,” Ralph, Nike’s handler, said confidently. “She’s really smart. I’m not worried.”
Erica instructs the rest of the group to practice commands as Nike and her handlers prepare. After a few moments, Ralph walks to the center of the floor with Nike, and the evaluation begins. Glancing down at her clipboard, Erica runs through a list of commands, including proper walking, obedience, nail cutting and grooming.
Nike maneuvers through each task with ease as handlers. Ralph and co-handler Stephen shower her with praises as Erica checks off the last box on her evaluation. This is an important step toward graduation.
Erica announces Nike’s seamless performance to an applause from the rest of the inmates. Glancing at the clock, Erica ensures the dogs are given 20 minutes to play outside in the yard.
“I believe there are consequences for our actions,” Erica said. “At the same time, I also believe we humans tend to judge a person’s worth based on their actions, rather than on the fact that he is a human being who is inherently worthy of respect and compassion. Dogs know no difference. Dogs treat us as we are, not as we’ve done.”
As the pups emerge into the bright open air, one can see the excitement in their step despite their best efforts to hide it. The dogs are taught that their harnesses dictate the difference between work and play. Harness on means work. Harness off means play.
The inmates begin to unfasten the harnesses, and before they even have a chance to hit the ground, the dogs are off, leaping, barking and running all over the walled-in yard.
“It takes you out of prison,” Paul said. “Gives your day a little more structure taking care of something other than yourself … not just sitting around idle.”
When training concludes at 10:30 a.m., the inmates are sent back to their respective prison blocks. Ralph and Stephen live in Block K with Nike. The two men amble back across the large barbed-wire-lined quad, occasionally stopping to let Nike sniff something.
Arriving at their cell, Nike has one last task to complete before moving on to her next stage of training. She must get inside her crate and stay there without making a sound for two minutes. Ralph walks Nike to her crate, and everyone leaves the room as Erica starts her watch. 30 seconds pass. One minute, then two minutes. She doesn’t make a sound. Nike passes the test. Ralph walks over to the cage, rewarding her with a pat on the head.
Since its integration into the prison system three years ago, CPL has yielded nothing but positive results. Tina Staley, the program manager at SCI-Greene, commented on the program’s long-term effects.
“The Canine Partner’s for Life Program has had a tremendous impact on both the inmates and staff at this facility. The program has not only changed the handlers who train the dogs, it has changed the entire atmosphere of the institution. The presence of the dogs goes far beyond the day-to-day training; they have brought a sense of purpose and connection. We believe CPL and other similar programs will play a big part in the future of corrections,” she said.
After dogs complete their training in prison, they are returned to CPL headquarters in Cochranville. There, they are trained another eight to 12 months before being assigned to their future owner. Currently, there is a one- to three-year waiting list for a CPL service dog. An applicant’s wait is based on need. The match process is a complicated one, complete with personality tests, extensive evaluations and several in-person meetings.
CPL, a nonprofit organization, charges nothing for its services. Each of its dogs costs an estimated $30,000 to train and comes with lifetime support. After being matched with a service dog, the recipient is asked to make a donation of between $1 and $3,000, or less than 10 percent of CPL’s investment.
CPL receives no governmental funding and acquires its $1.8 million annual budget through private donations. Its new kennels can accommodate 28 to 30 dogs, and the prisons play an integral role in training the young pups during their adolescent months.
“The program is a win-win-win for everyone involved,” said Jennifer Swank, the CPL prison program coordinator. “It benefits CPL by giving us well-trained puppies, benefits the puppies’ future recipients and benefits the correctional institution as a whole.”