Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Puppies Behind Bars

Fresh Air, the long-running interview program on National Public Radio, is very well named.

Tonight’s broadcast (originally aired on August 12) featured a segment on a remarkable program in New York State in which an nonprofit organization called Puppies Behind Bars enables prison inmates to train dogs for work in explosive detection or as service dogs. Many of the service dogs work with severely wounded veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury.

The guests who appeared on Fresh Air to talk about the program were its executive director/founder (Gloria Gilbert Stoga), a former inmate who trained dogs in Puppies for Peace and now works there (Laura Moran), and a wounded veteran of the war in Iraq (Paul Bang-Knutson), who brought his service dog to the interview.

The bond between the inmates who train the service dogs and the wounded veterans who receive them is astonishingly strong, the guests said. Stoga spoke of a meeting between vets and inmates in one of the participating prisons in which both groups were weeping openly. Through the dogs, those imprisoned in response to crime and those relegated to the margins of society by their injuries could come out of solitude.

Why do inmates tend to be such good trainers for the dogs? According to Stoga, the emotional fragility of inmates makes them well suited to the work. A dog offers unconditional love, 24/7, no matter what crimes the inmate may have committed. Caring for the dog − “being fully responsible for a live being,” as Stoga put it − helps the inmate deal with what is otherwise an often incredibly isolating experience of incarceration.

The impact on the wounded veterans is no less profound. The Fresh Air guests told of veterans who, when suffering from a PTSD episode, can end up on the floor in the fetal position. Puppies Behind Bars trains service dogs to intervene in these situations by literally calling 9-1-1 on an oversized phone originally designed for the visually impaired.

For many of us, thinking of dogs in prison implies harsh images of command and control. I'm referring here not just to the excesses of Abu Ghraib, but to ordinary American prisons like the one I visited with a legislative delegation in Clarinda, Iowa, a decade ago. It is truly inspiring to hear about how Puppies Behind Bars has turned this image on its head, making dogs into agents of healing.

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