Joe Walsh couldn't be late for this pick-up at the prison. If he missed the appointment window, the weekend puppy hand-off with the inmate would be canceled.
"You have to be on time, or you don't get the pup," Walsh said. "Hand-off comes direct from the inmate raiser. There are inmates we've been seeing for 10 years. One guy is on his 12th pup."
Walsh, a senior learning consultant with Infor Education, and his wife, Marilyn, have been volunteer puppy sitters for the charity Puppies Behind Bars since 2004. The New York-based nonprofit organization uses prison inmates to train psychiatric service dogs for wounded war veterans and explosive-detection canines for law enforcement.
The Walshes' role is to introduce puppies in the program to social experiences they cannot receive in the closed prison environment.
"We give the dogs a chance to have some fun," he says.
Puppies Behind Bars
Puppies Behind Bars was launched in 1998 within the New York State Corrections system as a win-win program for inmates and wounded veterans. Puppies are given to qualified inmates to raise. Over 18 to 22 months, the puppy raisers train their charges to be certified service dogs specializing in working with Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or as explosive detection dogs used by organizations such as Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Army.
The puppy raisers get the opportunity to give back to society and to learn valuable skills for use when they return to the world outside prison. The inmates also become teachers, training veterans one-on-one in prison to work with their new dogs. Watch video overview.
"I have never seen the connection that I see between inmates and soldiers, and I think it's because they share a lot of the same issues. They are both in their own prisons," said Gloria Gilbert Stoga, founder and president of Puppies Behind Bars, in a program video.
It takes about a year and a half to train a puppy for a soldier. Pups start as "an 8-week-old ball of fur," according to one inmate raiser. By the end, they can execute 90 commands-including dialing 911.
Most of the pups are Labs and golden retrievers. They handle stress well. Typically, there are 30 dogs at a time in the prison with 45 raisers. Within a 50-mile radius of the program's Manhattan headquarters are seven participating prisons. Half the dogs are for explosive detection, half are for service. There's a waiting list for the service dogs; veterans receive them at no charge.
"I wouldn't have a life right now if I didn't have the dog," said Jacob, an Iraq War Marine Corps vet, in a program video. "I went from having panic attacks twice a day to one every six months. I went from taking 15 pills a day to three. I thought every day about suicide, and then I got the dog and I feel alive. I don't want to die."
Puppy raiser Joey in the video offers his perspective: "It's just so gratifying knowing I did something for somebody - something noble. I mean, think of the sacrifice they did for us. … And whether I'm in prison or not, you know, I gave back to my country. And Brian (the dog) is my gift."
Walsh says being a raiser is "actually fairly high stress. They sign contracts and have to follow all the steps. Many inmates have stayed in the pup world after prison. Half the office staff at Puppies Behind Bars are former inmates."
In the early days, the prison staff was suspicious of the program, Walsh said. But as the program has evolved, the prison has gotten more comfortable with it, and interactions have become more relaxed.
"I've been amazed at how the entire prison has changed. Not only the inmates, but the staff, too," Walsh said. "How can you resist a puppy?"
Walsh works with the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, near his home. His job as puppy sitter is to socialize the pups by exposing them to sights, sounds, and activities that they cannot get in prison.
"In many respects, the experience is the puppy equivalent of grandchildren: pick them up, play, have fun, and later return them to their raiser," Walsh explained.
"The goal is always to give the pup a confidence-building experience while he is out in the real world," he said. "For example, we like to take the pups along with us on doctor appointments. It's something they will be doing once they become working dogs. A quick trip to the supermarket, the bank, or some other retail establishment is always a good endeavor. The younger the pup, the more low key the socialization visits are. Restaurants, malls, and other crowded places are reserved for the older pups. But another main objective is just to let them be puppies."
"As part of our training, we are told to be prepared for any accidents that might occur. One day in the local mall, a pup named Cleopatra decided it was time to "get busy" (the command to pee and poop), so she did. Our emergency supplies were out in the car. But the folks in the mall were used to seeing us with our pups, and they assisted my wife while I went to the car to get the paper towels," Walsh said. "That pup was known forever after as Cleopooptra."
Each sitter's minimum commitment is to take a puppy on a socialization day trip at least twice a month or one overnight visit per month. Longer visits also can be arranged.
"All sitters complete a series of training sessions where they learn the commands being taught by the raisers, so we can provide consistency in the dogs' learning process. We receive a letter from the raiser when we pick up the pup for the outing. The letter describes the pup, his/her strengths and weaknesses, so we can practice in our home and out in public.
"We don't really teach them anything new. That is the raisers' job. We reinforce what they have learned, only in new and different situations," he explained. "We normally do overnight visits. We try for three visits over a two-month window. Plus we do a lot of veterinarian runs, both scheduled and emergency."
What's in it for Walsh
What does Walsh get out of it? "A pet without responsibilities," he says.
As a consultant with Infor Learning specializing in the Infor M3 solution, Walsh travels about 60% of the time. The balance is spent assisting in courseware development and improvement. So he and his wife wanted a volunteer opportunity with a flexible schedule.
Another benefit is getting to meet the military veterans who receive their pups.
"About two years ago, the program had developed so far that the raisers were capable of directly training the recipient service men with their dogs," Walsh said. "As a result, the state prison authority developed such a strong bond with the program that it authorized graduation ceremonies. And we puppy sitters are able to attend and meet the recipients and spend some time with them."
At graduation, the Walshes now also get to talk more in-depth with the inmate raisers they share pups with.
"This is a great thrill," Walsh said. "We have been seeing some of these guys for 11+ years and really never have gotten an insight into them other than what came from each raiser's letter that we receive from them when we pick up a pup."
With all that lovable puppiness, Walsh says, "it can get difficult sometimes to part with them. We try not to take the same one too many times. We have had a few that we wanted to keep."
One in particular. "We're waiting for George to retire. If the veteran who has George decides to give him up for adoption, we would ask for him."
Watch this Puppies Behind Bars video to learn more.
Get information about donations or sponsorship of a puppy. Sponsors get to name their pup, plus they receive quarterly updates on the pup's progress and a copy of the raiser's journal that the veteran receives when he adopts the dog.
Above: Joe Walsh plays with Longbow, an 8-month-old pup in training to be a psychiatric service dog, during a weekend visit to his home this month. Photo by Marilyn Walsh.
Homepage: A service dog in training called Anderson (named for journalist Anderson Cooper) executes the "salute" command. Photo by Rudy Valdez, courtesy of Puppies Behind Bars.