Service Dogs Sentenced 18 Months Behind Bars?(Part I)

by Mary Haight on January 9, 2013

service dogsService dogs have been sentenced. Since the Veteran’s Administration quit funding service dogs in October 2012, the numbers of veterans in need of specially-trained dogs have multiplied. This program worked to help vets overcome limitations — physical and mental — resulting from their service. With yet another broken promise, it was good to hear of a training program taking up some of the slack. Not your average foster care puppy raisers, but by all reports, getting good results.

Michael S Rosenwald, a reporter for the Washington Post, featured a story on the State of Maryland Western Correctional Center and their service dog training program. Model prisoners, who happen to be veterans themselves, are in a puppy raising program to provide trained dogs for vets. Nice symmetry.

Not therapy dogs, service dogs are taught a range of tasks to aid, not simply comfort, the disabled. They are trained to turn off light switches, open doors, retrieve items that were dropped, alert to sounds, fetch telephones, pull wheelchairs, take out the garbage and most importantly, they learn to work as a team with their handlers. They must know 78 of 82 commands in order to pass exams.

The puppies spend the weekdays at the prison, shadowing their handlers throughout the day, learning lessons as they go, then the formal task-related training. Life in prison is consistent and orderly, every day the same routine, which helps the puppies learn quickly — no distractions. The dogs in turn help rehabilitate the handlers themselves and significantly change the mood behind prison walls, something you’ll hear about directly from an inmate and the AP reporter in the video below.

Weekends are a change of scenery for service dogs in training, with many new lessons as they go to foster family homes to explore the world of weekend shopping at the grocery store, in malls, and walking around in crowds, waiting at traffic signals, and sitting in cafes. Getting accustomed to the rhythm and noise of the outside world is a wide-eyed opportunity to learn.

The puppies can spend 16 to 24 months in these training programs, making them confident and mentally prepared for just about anything.  Does anyone wonder that so many have such love and respect for dogs?


In Part II, I’ll answer the question “who’s training the trainers?”

Further Reading:




  1. […] hope to have in their lives.  Because dogs conduct a variety of work successfully, demand for service dogs outstrips the ability to raise, train and place them. Many organizations around the country work […]

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