Service dog program in area prison moves forward

Dogs, inmates making progress

An area program that puts prison inmates to work with puppies is off to a strong start.

In May, News 8 showed how the puppies were being trained inside the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls.

In just three months, the puppies, as well as the inmates have changed dramatically.

Can Do Canines, the organization that runs the PAWS program, will one day give the dogs to individuals in need.

Nearly three months into training, Portia and her trainer Lee Brooks are still getting to know each other.

“She’s very playful, and she can be manipulative at times,” Brooks said.

Brooks said getting Portia used to prison life wasn’t very hard.

“If she sees you interacting with a ball or something fun or any cheering going on, she wants to be involved,” Brooks said.

It’s still early on, but program leaders say they can already see a difference in the puppies.

“Our loose leash walking is getting really good. Our stays are getting really good. Attention work is getting really good,” trainer Dyan Larson said. “This is the first group of dogs that these guys have had, so they’re learning to be dog trainers as much as the dog are learning the skills they are supposed to have.”

The four-legged friends are also bringing out a change in the inmates.

“We have a lot of inmates who indicate they haven’t touched a dog, they haven’t seen a dog in over two decades,” Warden Lizzie Tegels said.

“You’ll see a guy walk past and put on his playful voice or want to throw the ball,” Brooks said.

The program is giving these inmates a different set of skills they need to become integrated back into society.

“I like the responsibility of it — just knowing that I got someone to care for, someone I need to make sure eats, and goes to the potty breaks. I like being a caregiver,” Brooks said.

“The ability of them to commit to something so completely is, I think, really telling in how they’re making a change within themselves as well,” Tegels said.

Brooks could potentially stay another 14 years in prison, but knowing Portia will make a big difference in someone’s life in the near future is a way, he feels, that he can redeem himself.

“The things that I’m doing now will reach someone outside these walls, and that’s big for me,” Brooks said.
Program leaders said the training also helps inmates communicate with each other.

A big learning curve is teaching inmates how to teach other inmates on how to work with dogs.

It also helps teach inmates how to accept criticism when something isn’t working.
The dogs will remain at the prison until next spring.

From there, they head to “puppy college” to get more training in specialized areas.