Part 4: How it Began for Me
My first encounter with a puppy on the inside occurred after having already served 16 years. I was on a transfer layover in the Upper Peninsula when a guy walked by with a puppy. It blew my mind. Unless you have experienced going so long in a dehumanizing environment, words are probably not going to convey the “vibe” that a person feels when in the presence of a puppy; it is a strong, palpable feeling that is almost spiritual. People become aware of this sense when a stimulus, like a puppy, is reintroduced into the environment after having been removed for a long time. Puppies have a positive effect upon every prison that they are in.
Later, I arrived at The Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. I transferred to this facility to attend Jackson College. Anytime you join a program in prison, the trend is to remain at that facility until you are finished with the program. Because I was there for school, I figured that I would have enough time at this facility to participate in the Leader Dog program. So, I applied and was accepted. I joined simply because I loved dogs. I had no idea at the beginning how significant these puppies are to visually impaired people or would become to me. Puppies became my introduction into the world of behavioral science, a paradigm shifting subject that changed the way I view life.
I also didn’t know how much work raising a Future Leader Dog was going to require, but all the work pays off!
Part 5: The Fruits of Our Labor
When a person in prison raises a puppy that goes on to help a visually impaired person gain greater independence, all the hard work is rewarding. As most puppy raisers know, there is a whole lot more to raising a happy, healthy Leader Dog puppy than the average pet owner might realize. It requires discipline, education, the ability to be social and much more. These attributes, practiced during the time we raise our puppies, change us.
First, the discipline that is required to provide a quality life for a Future Leader Dog is intense. From taking our 8-week-old puppies out to “park” several times a night to the patience that is required to crate train puppies to asking people not to pet our puppies in public, all require high levels of discipline.
A lot of raisers use every meal to train their puppies. The time and drive it takes to obedience train a puppy like this develops consistent discipline that carries over into other areas of life. This happens because of Prison Puppies. No other prison rehabilitation program does this!
Of course, discipline will not bear the fruit that we are looking for from our puppies without education. What good is discipline if what a person does is incorrect or harmful? Leader Dog has done a wonderful job educating puppy raisers; in my opinion, this is a major strength of the organization. Our Puppy Raiser Manual is a world class collaboration that is just as good, if not better, than any book on the market.
We all know that we aim to use positive reinforcement to train our puppies. Leader Dog introduced me to these methods before I learned about them in a psychology class. Imagine how excited I was to read the section on B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning and already know it because of Leader Dog! The educational materials used over long periods of time develop an ability to apply what we learn in real life. It is a hands-on, practical, real life learning experience. No other prison rehabilitation program does this!
Not only is our effort worth it because it can provide a visually impaired person with more independence while creating an environment where discipline and education change the lives of inmates, but there is also one more overlooked benefit. This benefit is huge! When puppy raising goes behind the walls of a prison, a new social environment is created, and it requires social intelligence. More about this in my next post.
Part 6: Social Intelligence
Social intelligence also became a subject I learned because of Prison Puppies. Raising puppies in prison around so many different people is a challenge. We all get to decide how we want to respond to the challenges we face every day – with a victim mindset or a growth mindset. Puppy raisers face common challenges with those in society, but this is one challenge people on the inside must face that raisers in society don’t. It might help to think of it like this:
Let’s say you work in an environment with lots of people (about 100). Then think of how it would be to live with all those people in an industrial setting 24/7. All the ones you like… .and all the ones you don’t like! In this environment there is no getting away from our differences, so social intelligence becomes a necessity. There is no going home after a hard day of work. The people are there, in your environment, all the time.
Prisoners are forced to live together in close proximity. They do everything together: eat, sleep, shower, watch television, walk outside, etc. Then think about introducing puppies into this environment and trying to achieve Leader Dog’s goal with them! Pretty tough, right? This is what prisoners raising puppies face every day.
The challenge of living with so many different people in a crowded environment while trying to raise well-mannered, obedient puppies caused me to discover the subject of social intelligence. Without being a part of Prison Puppies, social intelligence wouldn’t have been a practical necessity for living because many successful prisoners limit the people they interact with on the inside. They have changed so much that their social circle shrinks. Or, successful prisoners limit their interactions simply because it’s easier to stick to themselves. A common compliment in prison is “That guy sticks to himself.” Books, movies, games or working out are ways successful prisoners check out of the prison social life.
But being in Prison Puppies doesn’t allow that! We are forced to engage, so learning social intelligence becomes the answer to a very difficult problem. Reengaging in the prison environment becomes a huge adjustment for those of us who checked out of it to change ourselves. Raising a puppy in this environment forces us to impress our changes upon the social environment – which isn’t an easy thing to do.
It is easy for people to see the negative aspects of living in prison. But I taught myself to look for the positive. Seeing the positive became habitual because of raising puppies THE LEADER DOG WAY. I was trained to ignore the behavior I don’t want and to redirect it into something I do want, then to reinforce the behaviors I want to happen again. It became a way of life that promotes rehabilitation in ways that other programs are not able to. Puppy raising is a practical, hands-on experience that is integrated into our social lives, whereas other types of rehabilitation programs are usually only a few hours per week and not easily integrated. No other prison rehabilitation program does this!