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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dogs That Work - Service Dogs

Over the past few years I've read about and seen news programs about puppies raised in prisons by the prisoners. They're responsible for care giving and basic training, but I never really gave much thought to what happens to those dogs when they grow up. Now I know.

One of our members, Heather writes a great blog called Tails Of A Carnivorous Convict: Life As A Prison Puppy. She agreed to share with us just how some service dogs get their start.

A while ago when I was living in Washington State, I thought that raising a Guide Dog would be fun, but I could never do it because it would be way too hard to give them up. As I looked it up more, and read about how they're trained, how much work it is but also how rewarding it is, I gave it more thought. After I moved to Massachusetts I decided to try it. The Guide Dog organization nearest to me is Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and once I saw how far away I would have to go to take a puppy to weekly classes I knew it wouldn't work out. But then I found the NEADS (New England Assistance Dog Services) Prison Pup Program, and I thought that it was a great idea to have prisoners train these dogs because they have so much time, and then have weekend puppy raisers take them out on the weekends. The weekend raisers are responsible mainly for socializing the puppy, but also teaching basic commands and house manners.

NEADS trains many types of Service Dogs, most common are dogs for a person in a wheelchair or a wounded veteran, Hearing Dogs for someone deaf or hard of hearing, and Balance Dogs to steady a person with limited balance. Also common are Social Dogs for a child with autism, the dog gives the child a lot more confidence. Occasionally they do Specialty Dogs, and train a dog to a person's specific needs.

When a match is made between a person and a dog, they stay at the NEADS facility for two weeks to get to know the dog and how to handle it. When they are paired, they go to graduation, which happens three times a year. Often matches are made before a scheduled graduation. In that situation they would come back to NEADS when it happens.

NEADS does charge for a Service Dog, though not for the canines for combat veterans. It costs about $20,000 to train a Service Dog, and their price is $9,500. They do help their clients with fundraising, however, and they do not require it to be paid all at once. After you have your Service Dog, it becomes your own dog and NEADS does not own any responsibility.

I applied for a puppy and waited 6 months before I finally got Barrett, a male Black Lab. During those months I went to a monthly class at NEADS in Princeton, MA and handled some of the younger dogs in those classes, the dogs that were still in the 'puppy nursery'. Going to those classes taught me a lot about how to train the puppies.

NEADS does not have their own breeding program, they rely on breeder's donations and accept healthy Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Standard Poodle, Smooth Collie and occasionally Labradoodle or Goldendoodle puppies. These puppies stay in a nursery where they learn basic commands and manners before they go to a prison at the age of 4 months. NEADS currently has 15 prisons that they send puppies to, mostly in Massachusetts, but also in Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Once the puppy is placed in a prison, they are then placed with a prisoner to be their main handler. The prisoner trains them, teaching commands, socializing and manners and also meeting with a NEADS trainer weekly. But because they can't bring them to all the different places they would go as a Service Dog, they go out with people like me, the weekend raisers.

Getting Barrett was very exciting for me and I worked really hard with him, handling his paws, ears and body, training basic commands, and of course bringing him into stores. He was very good from the beginning and cared a lot about me. He was also pretty sensitive, a great trait in a pet dog, but not so in a Service Dog, because they tend to startle more at loud sounds and get scared more easily.

Still, I worked hard with him and he was doing really well. He was very well behaved and always listened to me. I took him to many places, regular stores but also movie theaters, train stations, the airport, parks, farms, a bowling alley, dog shows, a car wash. All of these were important to his training because Service Dogs have to be okay with anything they see, so this means going everywhere you can.

One of Barrett's big problems was his cough. He had it ever since I had gotten him and as he got older, it got worse. The vet did tests and said it was kennel cough, but it didn't go away with meds like kennel cough usually does. Finally, it was getting so bad he was depressed, so NEADS arranged for a visit to Tufts. I brought him there and they did more tests and also came up with kennel cough. They put him on a high dose and a month's supply of antibiotics and said not to let him be in contact with other dogs in case it spread. He came to live with me for that month, living the life of a pet dog because his cough was too bad to go into stores. The cough didn't go away. The month became more months and going on and off meds. They even tried a higher dose for a month and a half and 5 days before the meds were ending his cough disappeared. Magically. He had almost been released from the program because of his cough and it had finally gone!

But Barrett had another problem. He had a fear of kids the he needed to get over. He was getting much better by the time he was 17 months and had to go back to NEADS for Advanced Training. the average age the dogs are ready to go to the facility. But I knew he wouldn't make it, and he didn't. The trainer said if it wasn't for his fear of kids, he would have another problem. He was just too sensitive. A great dog, very well trained, just too sensitive.

It was hard giving him up, but not as hard as it would have been if I had raised him full time from a puppy. It's true, I really bonded with him when I had him full time while he was sick. I was given the option of adopting him but I can't own a dog right now, so he lives as someone else's pet, happily I'm sure. He was much happier as a house dog than when I was taking him out and about, though he always wanted to do the right thing. He got so attached to me, his main desire was to follow me around the house but he wasn't allowed to so he just lay on his bed and watched me.

Now I have Ellie, a female Black Lab, who isn't as tuned into me, but is way bolder and seems just like the kind of dog NEADS wants. She is doing well and I am having fun training her though she is proving to be more of a challenge. It will be exciting to watch her grow up and mature into (hopefully) someone's Service Dog. I have high hopes for her!

After raising Barrett I knew I couldn't stop raising Service Dogs. When I am able to own a dog I know I will keep raising them. It is a joyful experience, even if it is hard to give them up at the end.


  1. Very cool. It is amazing the amount of thought that goes into deciding which dogs are cut out for the job and which aren't. It certainly takes a very special animal.

  2. Very cool programs out there... love the pics!

  3. What I great story and a great program, Heather! I wish the ending had been different for Barrett, yet it sounds as though he is happy. Hope Ellie makes it through graduation. Thanks also to prison inmates for working with dogs.

  4. I'm always in awe of people who can be so selfless. Of course, our household also lacks the discipline to raise such a dog...


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