Downeast Dog News
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America’s VetDogs Come to Maine

By Jenn Rich | Oct 27, 2017

If you happen watch the TODAY Show you may have seen Charlie, TODAY’s “Puppy with a Purpose.” Charlie is training to be a service dog through a program called America’s VetDogs, in hopes that one day he will be matched up with a veteran in need of his assistance.

In 2013, America's VetDogs became the second assistance dog school in the United States to be certified by the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International. It is their mission to enhance the lives of disabled U.S. veterans, active duty service members, and first responders by renewing their independence and dignity with the help of their very own service dog.

One program provided by AVD is their Prison Puppy Program of which the Maine State Prison, located in Warren, has just become their thirteenth member. This program is considered to be a veterans helping veterans program where incarcerated veterans will help train puppies who will one day move on to assist one of America’s heroes. These dogs are trained to assist people with physical disabilities, combat related PTSD, hearing impairment, and some will become guide dogs for the blind or seizure response dogs. They also train facility dogs which are trained like a service dog but will go on to military hospitals and rehabs to help patients with their recovery.

The puppies begin their 7 hour journey to Maine from the AVD campus located in Smithtown, New York. Once they arrive at the prison, they will be matched up with a primary and secondary handler. Both will receive 2-3 hours of training each week from a professional trainer who will teach them basic obedience, as well as service dog tasks. The inmates selected to become handlers must first undergo a thorough screening conducted by a team of social workers, case managers, program staff, etc. All candidates must have an exceptional behavior record. Honorably discharged veterans will be given preference.

The puppies arrive when they are 8 weeks old and will stay in the cell with their handler and accompany them throughout their day for the next 14 to 15 months. AVD will provide them with the necessary provisions including their own crate. Since they are dealing with puppies, special protocols are put in place to accommodate such things as 2 AM bathroom breaks.

According to Sheila O’Brien, Director of External Relations, Program Development and Quality Assurance at America’s VetDogs, the puppies thrive in prison because everything in prison is scheduled, and it provides these youngsters with a structured learning environment. Of course as we know, the world outside of prison is not so structured and sometimes our busy lives may delay a mealtime. They also need to learn social skills and house manners, be exposed to car rides, and noises. This brings in the second part of the team, Weekend Puppy Raisers.

Weekend Puppy Raisers are volunteers from the community who will pick up the puppy on Friday and bring him back to the prison on Sunday. This is to expose the puppies to things they will encounter outside of prison and teach them that the world is not so institutionalized.

Once the puppies have completed their training at the prison it’s now time to return to New York where they will receive another 3 months of training with a professional trainer before being matched up with a veteran. At this time America’s VetDogs flies the veteran to New York and provides them with accommodations for a two week period where they will receive, in a sense, their own training before returning home with their new companion.

While the overall cost to breed, train, and place one of these dogs is about $60,000, these services are provided to the veteran free of charge. Funding is raised entirely by the America’s VetDogs organization with the help of individuals, corporations, foundations, etc. They do not receive state or federal funding.

This program is a win-win for all involved. Thanks to the help of the prisoners, it cuts the training time in half and allows for more service dogs to be provided to injured veterans in a shorter timeframe. It gives the inmates the opportunity to give back to a fellow veteran while learning valuable dog training skills, and it has also been reported to create a calmer environment within the correctional facilities.

If you would like to learn more about the programs provided by America’s VetDogs or perhaps become a Weekend Puppy Raiser, please visit www.vetdogs.org.