First, some background. Since 2010, Leader has had a relationship with Fort Dodge, and also several other correctional facilities throughout the Midwest, in which inmates raise puppies for us. Inmate puppy raising is just like regular puppy raising except that it is done in a prison. This puppy raising model is not unique to Leader; several other service dog organizations have similar programs. This is because, in many ways, inmates are a nearly-ideal group of people to raise puppies. Their lives are extremely structured, and they have a lot of time to train a puppy. Structure and time are two things that can be in short supply for many "regular" puppy raisers, including myself, although people who are motivated enough make it work.
The downside to puppies being raised in prison is, of course, that they may not get to experience all of the real-world socialization that puppies raised outside have exposure to. Although this is always a concern, in my experience, even if puppies coming in for training from prison may show slightly more apprehension on initial exposure to new environments, for the most part they are able to adjust well. The consistency and time put into their training shows. If I was given two new dogs in my string, and all I knew about them was that one had been raised in prison and the other had not, and someone asked me which one I guessed would have better skills, I would guess the prison puppy. (Note that this only applies if I did not know who raised the puppies. I in no way want to discount the many unbelievably skilled puppy raisers I know personally, a lot of whose puppies come back with better skills than my own puppy who is about to return for training.)
Anyway, Fort Dodge has had the longest relationship with Leader out of all the facilities, and they have the most puppies. Every year they put on an event called Puppy Days. This event was started to demonstrate the puppies' training to the people who sponsored them, and to thank the sponsors for their support.
I was vaguely aware that this event existed -- I know people who went to it because they sponsored puppies, and I had seen videos of it -- and I had always thought about going in a vague, "some day" way. I have associated the name "Fort Dodge" with so many excellent Leader Dogs over the years that in my head it was like some mythical source of perfectly prepared Future Leader Dogs. The reason I finally went this year was because a guy who was in one of my classes and was matched with a Leader Dog raised at Fort Dodge wanted to go. He told me he was going, and I decided this was the perfect time for me to go too, especially because I didn't have a race or any other trip happening in August. So I called up the prison, got my name on the guest list, and drove the ten hours to Fort Dodge.
Fort Dodge is a town of about 25,000 people that is best known for the manufacture of animal vaccines and also, less interestingly, for the mining of gypsum and limestone. The town sits in the middle of cornfields and soybean fields, and, although I wouldn't actually call the town itself "pretty," the big wide-open Iowa sky and rolling fields were definitely pretty. (Much prettier than anything in Michigan, naturally.) The prison itself was surprisingly attractive. Keep in mind that my prison experience is limited to a tour of Alcatraz and watching three seasons of Orange is the New Black. Otherwise, I've never been in a prison and either never known anyone who's been in a prison, or never known that I've known anyone who's been in a prison. I wasn't expecting the immaculate facility, the cheerful guards, or the friendly inmates who were, honestly, like puppy raisers anywhere.
We signed in at the front door and then were escorted through a series of three separate gates into the building where Puppy Days took place. The first thing they did was feed us lunch. I didn't take any because I had just stuffed my face at Perkins with a late breakfast, so sadly I am unable to offer any commentary on how prison food tasted. Then we walked out of the cafeteria into a long hall. The walls of the hall were covered with pictures of all the Future Leader Dogs raised at Fort Dodge. There were SO MANY. Nothing but pictures of Labs and goldens and shepherds as far as I could see on both sides of the hall. That was the first thing I noticed; then I noticed that inmate puppy raisers were standing up against the walls in the hall, spaced about 20-30 feet apart, with their puppies sitting next to them. The puppy raisers were holding signs with their puppies' names and the names of the puppies' sponsors on them. The puppies themselves were sitting next to their raisers practicing impulse control and being rewarded for good behavior.
Entering the hall was actually a little overwhelming -- where to look first?? My biggest goal in visiting Fort Dodge was to personally thank as many inmate puppy raisers as possible for the hard work they put into the puppies, and let them know how much we as GDMI's appreciate the quality dogs they send back to us. I wanted to talk to every single one of them. But I also wanted to look at the puppy pictures of all those puppies up on the wall, because I knew A LOT of them. Not as many as I thought I would, but probably 1/4 to 1/3 of them. Several had been in my strings and gone on to graduate. They are working all over the world. It was pretty amazing to think of the number of great guide dogs that got their start right here.
There was an hour and a half between the time they opened the doors and the beginning of the official program. Filling that time was no problem as I talked to one after another puppy raiser who had raised a dog that I knew. They were exactly like any other puppy raisers -- they had questions about the training; they told me stories about things the dogs had done as puppies; they showed me the puppies they were currently raising. Another thing that happened was that the guy whose Leader Dog was raised here -- who may or may not want to have his name in my blog so I am just going to leave it out -- met the inmate who had raised his dog. Did the dog remember her raiser? Oh yeah. At first she just casually sniffed him, then she went crazy with excitement, pretty much exactly like they do at puppy raiser night at Leader during class. That was a great thing to see.
The program consisted of several different speakers -- people involved with the program at the prison, a couple of official Leader Dog representatives, a former inmate who was now out of prison but kept coming back for Puppy Days -- and several "drill team" demonstrations where the puppy raisers showed off their dogs' skills in coordinated obedience and impulse control exercises. They were pretty impressive, and I could easily see why the Fort Dodge puppies come in with such good skills.
After the program, there was some more time to visit with the puppy raisers. I talked to three guys whose dogs will be coming back for my next string, and they all told me about their dogs. One of them told me that he's sorry but his dog still pulls on leash sometimes when he's excited. Another one said that his dog still wants to chase the ball when they practice impulse control exercises, but he doesn't let her. I told them that my own puppy had just taken his In For Training test and he didn't do stellar on loose leash walking or self-control around the ball either, and reminded them that all of these things are works in progress, and we don't expect perfection. Hopefully that made them feel better.
The whole afternoon, it never once crossed my mind that I was talking to people who were incarcerated for very serious crimes. Some of them will be in prison for the rest of their lives. I can honestly say that I did not think of that for a second until the very end of the day. Then there was an announcement that all inmates had to go back to their cells, and that was it, they were done. This was the time where with any other group of puppy raisers we could have continued chatting, or decided to go out to dinner, but these guys had to leave, and we had to leave, too. It was definitely hard to remember that all of these great, hard-working, dedicated puppy raisers were criminals.
It is never difficult in my business to find heart-warming stories. There are all kinds of inspirational stories of clients, puppy raisers, volunteers, and staff members. But there was something especially inspiring about that day at Fort Dodge. The thought that something so good could come from something so bad is impossible not to marvel over. I have always believed that everyone wins with prison puppy raising. The prisoners win because puppy raising gives their lives purpose and allows them to give something back to society after taking something away from it. The puppies win because they have a great early life and learn how to bond with, trust, and work with humans. Leader definitely wins because we have a steady source of well-raised, well-trained dogs coming in for training. Of course, the clients win too because of the great dogs they end up getting. I always feel lucky to have the career I do, but I felt especially lucky at the end of my day at Fort Dodge, and I know I will be thinking of it for a long time.
NOTE: I'm sure that pretty much everyone associated with Leader has seen this video already, but for those who haven't, it's a short documentary of the program at Fort Dodge, and well-worth watching.