Ever wonder how much time, effort, love, and money goes into training service dogs? Gloria Gilbert Stoga first started thinking about this when she and her husband adopted Arrow, a Labrador Retriever from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Arrow was released from the program because of medical issues. That was in 1990, and Gloria found out that it costs $25,000 to raise each guide dog.
At the time, she read an article about Dr. Thomas Lane, a veterinarian in Florida, who believed that prison inmates would make excellent puppy raisers. “He started the first guide dog prison program,” she says. “Not only do inmates have unlimited time to spend with the puppies, but they benefit from the responsibility of being puppy raisers in ways that are especially important to their rehabilitation: they learn patience, what it is like to be completely responsible for a living being, how to give and receive unconditional love, and since puppy raisers take classes and train the dogs together, how to work as a team.”
At the time, Gloria decided to leave her job on New York City’s Youth Empowerment Services Commission and devote herself full time to founding a non-profit organization dedicated to training prison inmates to raise puppies to be guide dogs for the blind. Puppies Behind Bars, Inc. formally came into existence in July 1997. “We initiated the program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in November 1997,” she explains. “We began with five puppies in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s only maximum-security prison for women, and now work in six correctional facilities raising approximately 90 puppies.”
The prison programs operate in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Inmates are evaluated to see if they are a good fit for the program. “It is beneficial to all involved,” says Gloria, who works as president of Puppies Behind Bars. “I believe that the people in our program want to give back to society while they are incarcerated. It’s a responsible and selfless act.”
The trainers come in once a week and the inmates are with the dogs 24/7. The dogs, which come from breeders, are mostly Labs and Golden Retrievers. The puppies and prisoners live together for 16 months. “After that time, they are tested to determine their suitability for training as service dogs for the disabled or explosive detection canines for law enforcement,” says Gloria. “If they are deemed suitable, Puppies Behind Bars returns them to the schools where they continue their formal training. If they do not continue on the track to become working dogs, Puppies Behind Bars donates them to families with blind children. In either case, these puppies, raised in such a unique environment, spend their lives as companions to people who need them.”
Puppies Behind Bars pays 100 percent of all costs associated with raising puppies in prison, including dog supplies, educational supplies for the puppy raisers, teachers’ salaries, and travel. For information, visit their website.