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Inmates Train Service Dogs with Assist from Civilians on Weekends

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Talking with Sharron Kahn Luttrell, Author of Weekends with Daisy

My guest today is Sharron Kahn Luttrell, journalist, weekend puppy raiser and author of Weekends with Daisy. Welcome to OpEdNews, Sharron. 

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JB: My experience with puppies has been that it's more than a full-time job. So,  what's a part-time puppy raiser?  

SKL: I volunteer with the Massachusetts-based organization NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. NEADS, which stands for National Education for Assistance Dog Services, trains and places service dogs. Most of the dogs in the program live with prison inmates for about a year, starting from the age of about three months. The inmates train the puppies to be service dogs but what they can't do for them is give them real-world experiences, like riding in a car or going to a movie. That's where weekend puppy raisers come in. We take the puppies out Friday-Sunday evenings and gradually expose them to all of the experiences they'll encounter as working service dogs.

JB: I had never heard of prisoners training puppies. That's not usually how it's done, is it? Where did that idea come from? 

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SKL: I don't have numbers, but I do know there are prison pup programs throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. The first documented program dates back to 1981, when a Dominican nun named Sister Pauline Quinn started a dog training program at the Washington State Correctional Facility for Women. Apparently, she had the idea because her own German shepherd, Joni, was such a powerful healing force in her own recovery from abuse as a young woman. 

JB: What makes prisoners good candidates as puppy raisers? I confess, it's a bit counterintuitive. Puppy raising is a long and difficult process while impulse control and commitment are not necessarily a prisoner's strong suits. 

SKL: It's true, puppies can be incredibly frustrating. And training one to be a service dog requires impulse control, consistency, responsibility, empathy ... those aren't traits we associate with someone doing prison time. I think that's why it can be such a life-changing experience for the inmates. Training a puppy to be a service dog is a route to discovering their best, most mature self. Not everyone who wants to train dogs is admitted into the program. They have to be model inmates with a clean prison record. NEADS won't take inmates who have been convicted of certain crimes, including sex crimes and animal cruelty. 

JB: So, let's go back to your own story, Sharron. What got you hooked on the idea of weekend puppy raising for yourself, as opposed to liking the idea in the abstract?

SKL: The easy answer is that I wanted a dog in my life without the emotional investment and responsibility. It turns out there was actually a lot more going on in my head, much of which I was barely aware of at the time. Our own dog, a German shepherd named Tucker, had died two years earlier.  She was my companion, my protector, my motivation for getting out into the woods every day. She was with us for nearly 15 years and losing her felt like the end of an era. She was with us during those exhilarating years of growth, while my husband, Marty and I were building a life together. We brought her home as a puppy. She was there when we became parents, when our babies said their first words, took their first steps, started school. She was there during promotions and job changes, a move to a house that could better accommodate our growing family. Tucker was always, reassuringly there.

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Her death forced me to acknowledge that time was passing -- speeding up, in fact. If the Tucker years was a period of growth, what was next for me? Decline? My kids were growing up and I was surprisingly unprepared for that. I knew how to be the mother of young kids; I didn't know how to be a parent whose children were nearly grown. 

So, when I spotted a NEADS dog in a supermarket and learned about the weekend puppy raising program, I thought I'd found canine companionship without the prospect of another heartbreak 15 years down the road. Truth was, I was searching for so much more. And in many ways, I think I found it.

JB: I so know what you mean, Sharron. You put your finger on the quintessential double bind we mothers face - if we do our job right, we make ourselves obsolete. The  "give them wings to fly' thing. Were you not afraid of getting attached and having to let go, yet again?

SKL: I didn't think it through. Or, more accurately, I conveniently put that part out of my mind and focused instead on the fact that I'd get to spend time with a puppy every weekend. And when the puppy grew up, I'd get another puppy, and on and on into infinity. 

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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