Prison inmates train dogs in new program

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(Host) Puppies and prisons may not seem like they go together, but a new program at the St. Johnsbury work camp has inmates training dogs.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the dogs are being prepared to help soldiers who are returning from war.

“Hi honey how are you doing!”
“Oh, to die for!”

(Zind) Usually new arrivals at the corrections department’s work camp in St. Johnsbury aren’t greeted by the staff quite this enthusiastically.

“Hi sweetheart!”

(Zind) But these new residents are a pair of four month old Labrador retrievers.

(Sound of dogs panting)

(Zind) The dogs, named Padre and Shine, will be staying at the work camp for the next 18 months – living with the 100 or so prisoners who bunk in two large open dormitories surrounded by chain link and razor wire.

Despite the cheery reception, the dogs are here on business. They’re being trained as service dogs in response to a growing demand for them among a new group of people with disabilities: Wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The dogs will learn to wear metal harnesses to help injured vets walk. They’ll also be trained to pick up and retrieve things. Sheila O’Brien is Executive Director of NEADS, an acronym for New England Assistance Dog Services.

(O’Brien) “We now are faced with 27,000 wounded veterans in this country. Many of them are amputees, they have prosthetic devices and to walk with these devices they have to use canes or crutches. They’re in their 20s. They really don’t want canes or crutches. They want dogs.”

(Zind) O’Brien’s Princeton, Massachusetts non-profit provides service dogs to the deaf and people with disabilities. Eighty percent of the animals are trained in prisons.

(Duchaine) “Have they been nipping or biting at all and if they do, what do you do?”

(Zind) In St. Johnsbury, each dog will have a primary trainer and a backup. Mark Duchaine of Shelburne is responsible for Shine. He holds her leash in one hand. In the other there’s a piece of paper with a long list of questions for the people from O’Brien’s organization. Duchaine is serving time for his 4th DUI conviction. He says he likes dogs, but that’s not the main reason he volunteered to help train these two.

(Duchaine) “I’d like to help the Iraqi war veterans. They’ve done a lot for our country. I’d like to give back to them.”

(Zind) Duchaine and the other prisoners will train the dogs under the guidance of Diana Prokocimer of Lyndonville.

(Prokocimer) “You’re going to be training them all day long. You’re going to be training them not to pull. That’s probably your most important job right now.”

(Zind) Prokocimer says while the other inmates go outside the fence to work on community projects during the day, the volunteer trainers are giving up that little bit of freedom.

(Prokocimer) “For them to stay in with a dog is giving up a lot to do this.”

(Zind) And Duchaine adds

(Duchaine) “Not only that, most people work about five hours a day. This will be 24 hours-a-day.”

(Zind) Prokocimer says she’s really a people trainer – teaching the inmates how to work with the dogs. She says the sense of responsibility and the care giving skills they learn should help them in life after they’re released from the work camp.

(Sounds of inmates playing basketball)

(Zind) Out in the camp yard, inmates are lifting weights and playing basketball. But when the two puppies are led out, a group of them crowds around.

Jim Donnon is the work camp superintendent.

(Donnon) “The whole atmosphere of the place changes when you have dogs around. It’s a real plus for inmates.”

(Zind) Donnon says the dogs give the inmates something positive to focus on and remind them of home.

Padre and Shine are the first of as many as 8 dogs that will be placed at the work camp and trained to help disabled veterans.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind in St. Johnsbury.

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