2014-01-16 / Front Page

At Prison, Puppies Learn to Be Guides

Inmates Achieve High Success Rate in Training Guide Dogs at Chippewa Correctional
By Martha Stuit


Six guide dogs in training live at Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kinross, including (clockwise, from front left) Zella, Sammy, Drummond, August, Bravo, and Nell. They are being trained for their careers by inmates in the first program of its kind in Michigan prisons, and organizers say the program offers a positive experience for both the dogs and their trainers. (Photograph courtesy of Chippewa Correctional Facility) Six guide dogs in training live at Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kinross, including (clockwise, from front left) Zella, Sammy, Drummond, August, Bravo, and Nell. They are being trained for their careers by inmates in the first program of its kind in Michigan prisons, and organizers say the program offers a positive experience for both the dogs and their trainers. (Photograph courtesy of Chippewa Correctional Facility) Behind locked gates and inside cells, playful puppies live 24 hours a day with the prisoners at Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kinross. The inmates are training the young dogs to be guides for blind people. Leader Dogs for the Blind, a Michigan organization that prepares guide dogs, has found canines raised in prisons are the most successful in becoming partners to disabled people. But it is not just the dogs and their companions that benefit, as inmates find purpose and show improved behavior when they take responsibility for the dogs.


Cute puppies that live at Chippewa Correctional Facility meet the public Wednesday, January 8. They are part of a program in which prisoners train dogs to become guides for blind people. A group of local volunteers and staff from Chippewa Correctional Facility involved with Leader Dogs for the Blind in the prison bring puppies in training from the prison, including (from left) Joyce Oja with Bravo, Kim Christenson (kneeling) with puppy Kayla, Debbie Brewster with Nell, Cheryl Telles with Sammy, Judy Skowroneki with August, Paula Bardsley with Drummond, and Dave Bardsley with a yellow lab from the prison. Cute puppies that live at Chippewa Correctional Facility meet the public Wednesday, January 8. They are part of a program in which prisoners train dogs to become guides for blind people. A group of local volunteers and staff from Chippewa Correctional Facility involved with Leader Dogs for the Blind in the prison bring puppies in training from the prison, including (from left) Joyce Oja with Bravo, Kim Christenson (kneeling) with puppy Kayla, Debbie Brewster with Nell, Cheryl Telles with Sammy, Judy Skowroneki with August, Paula Bardsley with Drummond, and Dave Bardsley with a yellow lab from the prison. “They live right in the cell with the prisoners,” said Rob Batho of Chippewa Correctional Facility. For the prisoners, as a result, “I have seen a change in their attitude. Doing their time is more positive because they are staying busy. It teaches about responsibility and caring for others.”


Above: Deb Donnelly (left) of Leader Dogs for the Blind gives a presentation about prisoners training guide dogs. The first prison to host the program is in Iowa, and last summer, Chip- pewa Correctional Facility in Kinross became the first prison in Michigan where inmates train puppies. Prisoners are quite successful in training guide dogs because they have more time than volunteers with jobs, she said, to instill skills and commands in the young canines. Above: Deb Donnelly (left) of Leader Dogs for the Blind gives a presentation about prisoners training guide dogs. The first prison to host the program is in Iowa, and last summer, Chip- pewa Correctional Facility in Kinross became the first prison in Michigan where inmates train puppies. Prisoners are quite successful in training guide dogs because they have more time than volunteers with jobs, she said, to instill skills and commands in the young canines. The program was launched at Chippewa Correctional last summer from the suggestion of local resident Dave Bardsley. A couple of years ago, he and his wife, Paula, raised a guide dog. Mr. Bardsley, who has done prison ministry work, had heard of the success of the Leader Dogs program in Iowa prisons, an effort that started about 10 years ago. Leader Dogs for the Blind originated in Michigan in 1939, and so Mr. Bardsley wanted to see a Michigan prison implement the program, too.


At left: Dave Bardsley takes future leader dog, Zella, from Chippewa Correctional Facility to Drummond Island, where he and his wife, Paula (not pictured), cross-country ski to their home. (Bardsley family photograph) At left: Dave Bardsley takes future leader dog, Zella, from Chippewa Correctional Facility to Drummond Island, where he and his wife, Paula (not pictured), cross-country ski to their home. (Bardsley family photograph) The idea came to fruition in July, when two golden retriever puppies named Drummond and Bravo moved in at Chippewa Correctional Facility, making it the first facility in Michigan to host leader dogs. A month later, the prison received two more puppies, a yellow lab named August and black lab named Sammy. The facility has six puppies now with the addition of black lab Nell and Zella, a golden and lab mix. The prison will soon have eight dogs with two more puppies, a German shepherd named Chewie and black lab named Ashley, joining the ranks January 30.

At around seven weeks old, the puppies are dropped off at the prison. Older puppies that did not work out in other training situations, Nell and Zella have also been placed there. After receiving basic training, which includes socialization and obedience training, the dogs return to Leader Dogs at age 12 to 15 months. They will have four to six months of advanced guide dog training before being teamed with a blind person.


A group of prisoners at Chippewa Correctional Facility introduce the puppies in training to Santa Claus in December to familiarize them with a new experience. (Photograph courtesy of Chippewa Correctional Facility) A group of prisoners at Chippewa Correctional Facility introduce the puppies in training to Santa Claus in December to familiarize them with a new experience. (Photograph courtesy of Chippewa Correctional Facility) Deb Donnelly, puppy development specialist at Leader Dogs, manages the program in prisons, including Chippewa Correctional. Participation is a privilege for inmates, she said.

“For them to have a dog and be entrusted with a living creature is a gift,” she said. In turn, “We get great guide dogs from prison programs.”


Mike and Linda Wilkins of St. Ignace play with a puppy at Pickford Town Hall, where they heard a presentation about prisoners training guide dogs for the blind at Chippewa Correctional Facility, Wednesday, January 8. Prisoners raise and train puppies around the clock from age seven weeks to 12 to 15 weeks. Then, the dogs return to the Leader Dogs for the Blind headquarters in Rochester for advanced training before being paired with a person. Mike and Linda Wilkins of St. Ignace play with a puppy at Pickford Town Hall, where they heard a presentation about prisoners training guide dogs for the blind at Chippewa Correctional Facility, Wednesday, January 8. Prisoners raise and train puppies around the clock from age seven weeks to 12 to 15 weeks. Then, the dogs return to the Leader Dogs for the Blind headquarters in Rochester for advanced training before being paired with a person. Ms. Donnelly spoke about the program at Pickford Town Hall Wednesday, January 8. Members of Lions Clubs in Drummond Island, Les Cheneaux, Pickford, Rudyard, and St. Ignace attended the presentation. Lions Clubs support the leader dogs program and other efforts for the vision impaired.

During the presentation, the room filled with impatient yips from young puppies as spectators were entertained by their antics. Staff brought the dogs in training from Chippewa Correctional Facility. Another puppy in training by Ms. Donnelly, a threemonth old German shepherd named Jedi, accompanied her. People raising the dogs get to name them, and she joked that her name choice started a “Star Wars” trend.


Chippewa Correctional Facility dog Sammy (from left), volunteer Tammy Bartz, her dog in training Harper, Deb Donnelly of Leader Dogs for the Blind with German shepherd Jedi, yellow lab Axel, Rob Batho of Chippewa Correctional, and volunteer Patti Brehler with black lab Bear tell the public about the successful guide dog training program, both for the puppies and prisoners, at the prison in Kinross. It is the first Leader Dogs program in a prison in Michigan, and Baraga Correctional Facility is launching the second one this month. Chippewa Correctional Facility dog Sammy (from left), volunteer Tammy Bartz, her dog in training Harper, Deb Donnelly of Leader Dogs for the Blind with German shepherd Jedi, yellow lab Axel, Rob Batho of Chippewa Correctional, and volunteer Patti Brehler with black lab Bear tell the public about the successful guide dog training program, both for the puppies and prisoners, at the prison in Kinross. It is the first Leader Dogs program in a prison in Michigan, and Baraga Correctional Facility is launching the second one this month. After less than a year, the program at Chippewa Correctional has already impacted the prisoners, said Mr. Batho, the assistant residential unit supervisor at Chippewa.

“Since we’ve had the program,” he said, “we haven’t had a single fight in the unit. It has helped the overall mood of the unit.”

Training is progressing ahead of schedule for the first two puppies that will be returned to Leader Dogs in March for advanced training.

The unit of Chippewa Correctional housing the program contains 144 inmates, and around 20 participate with the dogs. Prisoners helping in the program must have a high school diploma and not have any misconduct tickets for poor behavior in prison. Inmates with a history of abuse are not eligible to join the program. Chippewa Correctional can host eight to 10 dogs at most, a number determined for space and safety. For each dog, one prisoner serves as the main handler, with a second prisoner as the assistant handler.

Around 1,800 inmates reside in the facility. Chippewa Correctional Facility is a low-level security prison, meaning the prisoners may have committed violent crimes but are easily managed, said Mr. Batho. Nearby, the Kinross Correctional Facility runs a program for prisoners to train and put rescue dogs up for adoption.

Prisoners with two to three years of time left to serve are selected to train dogs. This timeframe, said Mr. Batho, will enable them to train a couple of dogs, instead of interrupting training when inmates finish their sentences and having to reassign a dog to another prisoner.

Before receiving a puppy, inmates receive a handbook to review training methods and requirements. A puppy counselor visits the prison once a month to check on progress and provide support.

Because prisoners do not have access to the outside world for some training experiences, such as navigating traffic or going to the store, volunteers take the dogs “on furlough” for an afternoon or few days and expose them to new situations. Mr. Batho packs a bag with food, toys, and a blanket to send the dog on its outing. Among the outings was a Pickford-Cedarville boys basketball game in the fall.

Mr. and Mrs. Bardsley volunteer to take puppies home for supplemental training. They live on James Island, near Drummond Island, and bring the puppies on boats, helping to acclimate them to new experiences. The young dogs are lovable, and people raising them grow attached. Mr. Bardsley said the dog they raised became a part of their family.

“The problem,” Mr. Bardsley pointed out, speaking from his experience raising a leader dog, “is not raising the puppy. The problem is giving the puppy back” for its advanced training and placement.

When the puppies leave and return to the prison, the prisoners communicate with letters to the volunteers to tell them what the puppies already know and what they need in training. The volunteers also write letters informing the prisoners what experiences the puppies gain in the outside world.

The letters from prisoners, said Mr. Bardsley, also reveal their gratitude to have the dogs and personal growth as a result of caring for another creature. Particularly, with sponsoring the puppy named Drum- mond, the Drummond Island Lions Club has received letters and pictures from the inmates, telling of the positive experiences both dogs and prisoners have had. It costs about $500 to raise a puppy in the prison system, and local organizations can become sponsors.

With food provided by Leader Dogs and veterinary care donated by Dr. Dick Bennett of Grand Rapids and Drummond Island, the program does not cost the prison – or taxpayers – anything, pointed out Mr. Batho.

Leader Dogs has found immense success in such prison programs, said Ms. Donnelly. Because the organization has strict training standards, some dogs are not allowed to continue to advanced training when Leader Dogs takes them back. For instance, a puppy that does not like working in a harness might not be a good guide dog for the blind.

So, when people in homes raise the puppies, the success rate of dogs growing up to be guides for blind people is 40%. In contrast, puppies raised by prisoners have a 70% success rate. Leader Dogs attributes this disparity to the time prisoners spent with dogs. Volunteers often have jobs and cannot spend as much time with the puppies, but prisoners are with the dogs constantly. Dogs that do not fulfill training requirements have a “career change” and become service dogs for other organizations.

The prison environment, said Ms. Donnelly, provides an ideal atmosphere for puppy training. Noise and activity there familiarize them with a variety of situations, and the daily routine provides regular opportunities to reinforce training. Cells are furnished sparsely, so puppies do not have access to typical household items and cannot get into much mischief. They do not develop bad habits. This environment helps because the dogs must be obedient and unflappable.

“What we are looking for is a calm, quiet dog that will watch as the world goes by,” she said.

The goal is to “raise the invisible dog” so that it aids its human partner but is not unruly in public. Training requirements are strict. Before handlers can give a puppy attention, the dog must sit first, she said. The dogs must be well behaved and smart because they have to make decisions about guiding their blind owners and navigate the world competently.

“It takes a special dog to do that,” she said.

The first prison to pilot dog training was Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in Iowa 10 years ago. Inmates serving life sentences are among the residents, and they have become the core of the program, overseeing the training and maintaining training standards. They provide continuity because they know how the program works, said Ms. Donnelly. Prisoners serving shorter sentences might not care about breaking a training rule. Livelong residents, however, do not allow for mischief because the prison is their home.

Since the start, more prisons in Iowa now host dogs, and facilities in Minnesota and Wisconsin also nurture dogs for Leader Dogs.

Most of the guide dogs are Labrador retrievers, at 85%. A lab’s best friend is the person who feeds them next, she said, so the breed works particularly well because they are motivated by food. The Leader Dogs training method is positive reinforcement with treats when a dog follows a command or completes a task correctly. Golden retrievers comprise another 10% of the dogs, and the remaining 5% are German shepherds. Breeders organized by Leader Dogs raise the puppies from Leader Dogs breeding stock for the first few weeks.

Leader Dogs places guide dogs with people around the world. Blind people, as well as some deaf-blind people, apply to receive a dog free of charge, however, Leader Dogs estimates the value of their trained guide dogs at $40,000 owing to the extensive training.

All puppies are considered potential breeding stock because Leader Dogs not only raises the puppies but breeds them. When dogs return for advanced training, either from volunteers raising them or prisons, Leader Dogs evaluates them for training and breeding. Dogs that become guides are spayed or neutered before placement with a blind person.

Leader Dogs trains 400 to 450 puppies a year, and 125 of them are with prisoners. The organization matches around 200 dogs with blind people a year.

Leader Dogs created a documentary of prison training programs, and it will be available online at the end of January.

Ms. Donnelly has been involved with Leader Dogs for around 20 years, beginning as a volunteer for 18 years before starting to work for the organization two years ago. Her dedication to the work is clearly seen in Jedi, the 20th dog she has trained.

“I got involved because I could change people’s lives,” she said of her participation.

When she drops off dogs at prisons and works with inmates, she sees the positive effects of the puppies on their handlers’ attitudes. An inmate in Iowa told her he used to be angry every day. When he received a puppy that depended on him, his attitude was transformed.

The puppies “change their outlook on life,” Ms. Donnelly said.

Giving up the puppies when they are ready for advanced training teaches the prisoners about loss, too. They learn what it feels like to have something taken away from them and about the loss their families felt when they entered prison, Ms. Donnelly said. Furthermore, the national recidivism rate for prisoners that are released but reoffend is 60%, but for participants of the Leader Dog program, the rate is much lower at 11%, pointed out Ms. Donnelly.

After checking in on the program at Chippewa Correctional Facility and giving the presentation in Pickford, she was headed to Baraga Correctional Facility with two charming puppies, a nine-week-old male yellow lab named Axel and an eightweek old male black lab named Bear, to initiate the second prison Leader Dog training program in Michigan there. The men, she said, were eager to receive the puppies after she brought Chippewa Correctional dogs to visit in November.

When she drops off the dogs at Baraga and returns the next day to check on them, she predicted the effect of the dogs on the prisoners will start right away: “The guys will have been transformed. It happens overnight.”

Return to top


Click here for digital edition
2014-01-16 digital edition