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Prison Programs: An Interview with Indiana Canine Assistant Network

Many organizations utilize prison programs to raise and train future assistance dogs. Prison programs are at a unique advantage for training due to their ability to monitor and train the dogs 24/7. They have exceptional experience addressing a wide array of behavioral challenges and provide great structure for the dogs. Additionally, the inmates involved in these programs gain valuable knowledge on how to train dogs, lowers the rate of recidivism and gives them an increased sense of purpose.

Indiana Canine Assistant Network, Inc. (ICAN) is one of the numerous organizations that utilize prison programs and one of the organizations that uses inmates as their primary raisers. We spoke with Julie Mathias the Volunteer and Canine Coordinator who works closely with this program.

A group of inmate raisers in blue ICAN vests walk away from the camera.
A group of ICAN inmate raisers.

Can you explain how your prison program works?

We currently work with 3 correctional facilities in the Indianapolis area. Our inmate handlers are selected through an application and interview process. We have specific requirements for eligible handlers, including no conduct reports for the previous 12 months and a referral from their counselor. Upon hire, our new handlers undergo a 9 week probationary training period led by our senior inmate handlers and their education team. These handlers are given readings, videos, hands-on training, and testing during this period.

Following training, the inmate is assigned to their first primary dog. In most cases, our dogs start out at 4 months old in one of our two men’s prisons and transition over to our women’s prison closer to graduation; however, there are times the men practically “finish” the dogs, and the women keep them the entire time.

The inmates have to complete required documentation for assessments and training reports monthly and have requirements on how often inmates have to trade dogs (24 hours weekly and 72 hours straight once per month) so the dogs have the opportunity to work with a variety of handlers and proof their skills.

The inmates are responsible for training all cues and behaviors, starting at 4 months old and ranging until approximately 2 years of age when the dog graduates and is placed with their client.

The program is mostly peer-taught, with senior handlers holding training classes regularly in the prison. As they all live together, this is constant accountability. ICAN’s Director of Training, Sean Diamond, visits the prison multiple times per week to check in, perform assessments, and hold training classes as well.

Below there is more information about their expectations and schedules.

Why does your organization use prisons instead of just using the general population?

ICAN has a double mission in that not only do we want to provide assistance dogs for those living with disabilities, but it is also our goal to provide foundational life skills to the inmates who train these dogs. The skills they learn within our program, ranging from physical skills such as dog training to personal and communication skills such as public speaking, help prepare them for reintegration into society.

In addition to this portion of our mission, our handlers are able to provide 100% consistency. They are held accountable by their peers and are able to truly dedicate all of their time to the dog.

We still do use the general population as volunteers in other capacities, mentioned below.

What are the expectations of the inmates while they are working with the puppies (as far as training, grooming, etc.?)

The inmates are responsible for fully caring for the dog they are training. This includes training all cues and behaviors needed to graduate as a service animal, in addition to all of the dog’s grooming needs. Inmates are often also assigned “jobs” within the program, such as serving as the prison’s “vet tech.” This person is responsible for logging any vet-related topics and working with the Director of Training. Other examples are senior handlers leading training classes or someone being responsible for keeping track of supply inventory.

There are times when we have our litters of puppies in one of our correctional facilities, and the handlers are responsible for caring for the litter and beginning early training prior to them moving to their puppy raisers.

A dark red lab in a grey vest tugs a fridge door open.
An ICAN SDiT training.

The inmates are also responsible for writing reports, not only for our Director of Training for assessments and monthly information, but also for our volunteers who work with the dogs for various periods. They also practice their writing skills when writing sponsor letters to the dog’s sponsor.

They also practice public speaking and/or teaching skills, not only when teaching each other, but when clients and/or volunteers enter the prisons for training classes led by inmates.

Some examples of the skills we provide to our inmates:

  • Interpersonal communication

  • Working in a business-like structure

  • Peer mentorship and teaching

  • Responsibility

  • Dog Training

  • Public Speaking

  • Grooming

  • Vet Tech Skills/Knowledge

It is expected the handlers act professional at all times, work well in a group, and put in the work to train these dogs consistently at all times. The dogs live with them 24/7.

Do the dogs spend their whole time in training at the prison? Do they get out on the weekends? Or for a few weeks at a time?

Our puppies officially begin their training in prison at 16 weeks. Depending on availability, some litters are weaned from 4 – 8 weeks old in one of our correctional facilities. Other times, volunteers keep the litter in their homes the entire 8 weeks with the litter.

Our puppy raisers work with the puppies from 8 – 16 weeks of age and are responsible for environmental exposures and teaching house manners. Our puppy raisers also begin to teach some of the foundational cues the dogs will learn, such as their name, sit, down, and come to name a few.

At 4 months old, the dogs enter (or re-enter) the prison(s) to begin their formal training with an inmate handler. At that time, the dogs are added to a 6-weeks-in, 3-weeks-out rotation. Every 6 weeks, a “Furlough Volunteer” will take a dog for a 3 week “furlough.”

During that time, the volunteer is not responsible for teaching or training any new cues, but should reinforce the “Level 1” cues the dog has already learned along with basic service dog behaviors (Loose Leash Walking, Calm Greetings, Quiet Crating, etc.). The dogs are assigned to volunteers based on their age, skill, and personality. We especially look for every dog to live at least once with a volunteer with cats, kids, a full time job in an office setting, a college campus, etc. We have over 200 volunteers that offer a variety of experiences and different lifestyles, so we prefer to vary their exposures to help them prepare for any lifestyle their potential client will have.

A golden retriever lays next to their raiser who is using a wheelchair.
An ICAN SDiT works with their inmate raiser.

The inmate handlers will write a report for the volunteer outlining what the dog knows and what they would recommend doing if the dog exhibits specific behaviors they have been working on together. It is then the volunteer’s responsibility to take detailed notes and send a report back to ICAN’s Director of Training and the dog’s inmate handler outlining how the dog performed in various locations with different distractions.

As there are experiences that volunteers can provide that handlers cannot, such as living with kids or riding in a car, this portion of our training is essential.

If there is any other information you would like to share, please do!

Our program is also unique in that we are one of a few programs that allow clients to enter the facility at the time they receive their service dog to undergo training led by that dog’s specific handler at the Indiana Women’s Prison. During “Team Training,” the dog’s handler is able to teach the client specific information about their dog. We then host our graduation ceremony inside the Indiana Women’s Prison, welcoming the public to interact with the handlers and clients, and watch a graduation ceremony put on by our handlers where they each practice public speaking skills and the dog physically walks across the stage for the transfer of the leash from trainer to client.

You can learn more about prison programs in our Raising Resources!

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