Dog Training Program Leaves a Pawprint on Hearts Inside and Out of Prison

Two people posting with puppy
Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 8:45am

Dewy eyes, a wet nose and a wagging tail all add up to something that transcends even the toughest exterior and touches our very soul. That something connected groups of people in profoundly different positions at a recent “leash” ceremony held at Warren Correctional Institution as part of its “At Both Ends of the Leash” (ABEL) Program.

The program, a partnership with nonprofit Eyes Ears Nose & Paws (EENP) of Carrboro, allows offenders to train service dogs, working with EENP to develop the training regimen. The program’s end goal is to place the dog in a home of an EENP client with assistance needs. 

From puppyhood, a dog in the program is trained for months as the companion of an offender trainer, with phases where the dog also trains in the home of an EENP volunteer. The passing of the leash signifies the teamwork that extends to both sides of facility gates. Whether inside prison or out, the trainers work toward the goal of preparing their dog for service, and of course develop a common bond with the dog. Cristel Vaughan, assistant supervisor of programs at Warren Correctional, called the program “mutually beneficial.”

Participating offenders beamed and applauded each other during the ceremony, which included demonstrations where the dogs retrieved and carried items, resisted temptations and assisted persons to rise from a lying position. One dog, Charlie, even showed off how she could enter and lock herself in her crate.

Training any dog, let alone a service dog, requires a tremendous amount of time and dedication. Here, it is a great opportunity. Offenders who serve as trainers can fulfill a need and bring purpose into their days. Participating offenders must qualify and commit 18 months to the program, spending nearly every moment with their canine training companion. 

“There’s a lot of power in what these guys are doing,” said EENP Executive Director Marie Ikenberry. One offender spoke about how before joining the program, he scoffed at the idea of praising a puppy in a high-pitched, excited voice. Now, it comes naturally. All of the ceremony’s demonstrations involved positive reinforcement and obvious love for the dogs.

Speakers included a client who would soon be welcoming one of the graduating dogs to her home. It became difficult for her to express her gratitude for the mobility assistance she will receive to help with an arthritic condition that makes basic everyday tasks impossible on her own.

EENP Program Director Deb Cunningham characterized the “culture of trust” that the program facilitates. Through training dogs, the workgroup of offenders has developed its own community where they rely upon one another to progress through levels of training, signified by colors of leash. A red leash signifies a mastery of basic commands, while blue and then silver leashes represent more advanced levels.

An offender described the positive environment in their pup-friendly cell block: “We push to be the best you can be.”

The ABEL program is one of two dog-training programs in certain North Carolina Adult Correction facilities. The other program, “New Leash on Life,” socializes and trains homeless dogs to prepare them for adoption by families.

George McCue