WAYNESBURG – The puppies arrived early Wednesday afternoon at the State Correctional Institution at Greene.
The five, yellow Labrador retrievers were brought to the maximum security prison to begin their training, not to become guard dogs but to become dogs capable of assisting people in the community who have physical disabilities.
With the puppies’ arrival, SCI-Greene began its participation, in partnership with the nonprofit organization Canine Partners For Life, in a program to train certified service dogs.
The puppies’ arrival caused quite a stir at the institution. “Everybody is excited,” said Tina Staley, a prison counselor who worked on the committee to implement the program and who waited in the lobby with a number of staff for the puppies to arrive.
In the atmosphere of a maximum security prison, Staley said, “it brings something very positive.”
The puppies’ trainers will be inmates who were rigorously screened for the program. Eleven had volunteered and received instruction from the Canine Partners for Life staff, said Mike Smith, SCI-Greene activities manager.
At a brief ceremony to kick off the program, the inmates were introduced. Each thanked prison and CPL staff for being given the opportunity to be involved in the program. One said he believed he might be becoming an old “softy,” admitting he “teared up” when the puppies were brought into the room.
The program is good for CPL, which after a year will receive a dog with a certain degree of training, but also for the inmates, Smith said.
It will help instill them with a sense of responsibility and discipline and give them a little self-esteem, he said
When the inmates were asked why they chose to be a part of this, “they said they wanted to be able to give back and provide a positive benefit to the community,” Smith said
The inmates are all volunteers and will not be paid for their work. Being in the program is also a privilege, Smith said, and the inmates know if they break any rules they will lose the opportunity.
The puppies will live in the inmates’ cells 24/7 and will be taught basic obedience skills by the inmates. Volunteers from the prison staff will also occasionally take dogs home to get them use to other situations and people, Smith said.
The dogs will be at the institution for about a year. After completing initial training, they will return to CPL for more advanced training aiming at meeting their future owners’ particular needs, said Jennifer Dennis, CPL puppy project coordinator.
The dogs can be taught to assist with such tasks as opening a door, turning on a light switch or helping a person get dressed, she said.
CPL, which formed in 1989, places 20 to 30 dogs a year with people who have physical disabilities or medical conditions including multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spinal injuries and heart disease, Dennis said.
Smith thanked the many people who were involved in starting the program at SCI-Greene, including prison Superintendant Louis Folino, who will retire on Friday, members of the prison’s CPL committee and CPL staff.
The program at SCI-Greene would not have been possible, he said, without the participation of the Waynesburg Animal Hospital. The hospital agreed to provide free veterinary services to the dogs during their stay.
The service program has been operating in the state prison system since 2002. Other state prisons that also train service dogs with CPL include Cambridge Springs, Muncy, Albion and Smithfield.
It’s been very successful, Dennis said. “We have always received well-trained dogs from the prisons,” she said. CPL benefits from the work but so, too, does the prison and the inmates, she said. “It really gives the inmates a way to give something back to the community, to do something that helps somebody else,” she said.