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Rochester Hills

December 10, 2013

Puppies transform prisoners

By Linda Shepard
C & G Staff Writer

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Puppies transform prisoners
Deb Donnelly, Rochester Hills Leader Dogs for the Blind puppy development supervisor, pairs prisoners with puppies like Jedi, a shepherd, for cellblock Leader Dog training.

ROCHESTER HILLS — At the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in Iowa, prisoners raised 80 future Leader Dogs for the Blind puppies in cellblocks this year.

For many of the prisoners, who may be serving long sentences, puppy raising is a life-changing experience.

“Many of the men never thought society would give them this chance and are grateful someone believed in them,” said Deb Donnelly, Leader Dogs for the Blind puppy development supervisor. “We see a change in the men within a matter of hours.”

One prisoner told Donnelly he was “angry every day” before he become a puppy raiser. “He said, ‘The puppy depends on you for everything, and it has changed my life,’” she said.

Another man told Donnelly he had been in jail for the past 23 years, and before receiving his puppy, hadn’t petted a dog in all that time. A prisoner with a 40-year sentence raised six puppies for Leader Dogs.

“He wrote a software program for puppy raising when he got out,” Donnelly said.

The prisoners put on “puppy day” once a year, creating a gala featuring a puppy training display, music and more.

“They spend days decorating the gym,” Donnelly said. “They live for this.”

Giving the puppies back to Leader Dogs after the 12-month training period often proves difficult.

“This big guy, with tattoos and a shaved head, was crying and wiping away his tears with his puppy’s bandana,” Donnelly said. “The wardens say they use this as a teaching tool about loss.”

For their innovative Prison Puppy Raiser program, Rochester Hills’ Leader Dogs for the Blind was recently selected from hundreds of nonprofits across the nation to be honored with the Mutual of America Foundation Community Partnership Award.

“They presented the award in New York City Nov. 20,” said Rachelle Kniffen, Rochester Hills Leader Dogs for the Blind director of communications and marketing. “Ten people associated with the program were there.”

The honor includes a $25,000 cash award to be used for creating a documentary about the Leader Dogs for the Blind Prison Puppy Raising program.

Filming is complete, and the documentary will be released as a marketing tool in late January, Kniffen said.

“They were here for a week and then went to Iowa to film at the prison.” 

The Leader Dogs for the Blind Prison Puppy Raiser program enlists inmates in state prisons to raise future leader dogs in their cellblocks. Dogs raised in the program have a higher success rate in training than dogs raised in private homes, and prisoners who participate are much more successful at staying out of trouble once released, say prison and Leader Dogs officials.

The program was launched in 2002, beginning at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. Currently, the program places puppies in six minimum-security prisons across four states, including Michigan.

“Inmates who have raised a puppy express pride and gratitude for the chance to give something back to the community,” said Susan Daniels, president of Leader Dogs for the Blind, in a statement.

Individual prison wardens initiate the puppy-raising program at each facility, Donnelly said, requiring participating prisoners to possess either a high school diploma or a GED.

“They need to do reports, and they need the skills to do that,” she said. “It is motivation to get a GED.” 

Once the prisoners are released from jail, the men often remain active with Leader Dogs.

“We have several former prisoners who are regular puppy raisers,” Kniffen said.

Currently, Rochester Hills Leader Dogs for the Blind is in desperate need of families to host breeding stock male and female dogs, Kniffen said. The volunteer position involves keeping the dog in a private home throughout the dog’s breeding life.

“If you host a breeding dad, you’ll need to bring him to Leader Dog when requested for breeding purposes,” Kniffen said. “If you host a breeding mom, you’ll need to bring her to Leader Dog when requested for breeding purposes, birth the puppies in your home and care for them for their first six weeks of life.”

Leader Dogs for the Blind provides all host home veterinary services free of charge during the breeding life of the dog. Host homes provide food, toys, love and care for the dogs. When the dog is retired from breeding, the host family is permitted to adopt the dog as a pet.

Those interested in hosting a breeding dog can call Leader Dogs at (248) 651-9011 or visit leaderdog.org/volunteer/breedingstock.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Linda Shepard at lshepard@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1065.