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At Upstate NY prisons, inmates train puppies behind bars to change lives for veterans

Bernadine Green, deputy director for the Defense Department's Military Working Dog Breeding Program on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, cuddles with a puppy. (DoD/Released)

Visiting a maximum security prison may not be the place you would think of turning when you need help, but thanks to the Puppies Behind Bars program, it is giving veterans and first responders a new leash on life.

Puppies Behind Bars began in 1997, when five Labrador puppies were brought into the maximum security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County. Ten female inmates were tasked with nurturing, loving, and training the puppies to be future working dogs.

At present, Puppies Behind Bars instructors teach in six correctional facilities in New York and New Jersey, with approximately 140 prison inmates participating in the program as “puppy raisers”. Over the course of two years, the participants develop a bond with the service dogs, starting when the dogs are 8-weeks-old.

Many of these dogs have graduated to becoming working and service dogs. They might be sniffing out bombs or helping a first responder with symptoms of PTSD.

Here are just two examples of the ways these dogs have changed lives of Upstate New Yorkers from the organization’s 23 years of operation.

Erica and Allie

Erica Collins, of Syracuse, N.Y., was in the military for five years. She was stationed at the President’s hospital in D.C. right before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On that day she was involved in the initial search and rescue to the Pentagon. On Sept. 13, 2001, she was sent to Ground Zero where she worked for a while before returning to the capital as a medic for the hazmat workers doing anthrax clean-up.

She deployed to Iraq months later for a year and worked as a medic there. She worked on the Medevac flights and the burn unit, caring for Iraqi women and children burned in all the bombing.

Collins said she tried to live normally after coming back into civilian life. However, the only place Collins ever went alone was to work at the VA hospital and that was an anxiety ridden daily ordeal.

“I would park my car in the parking garage and the anxiety would begin; looking in every direction, leaving my car doors locked until I felt safe enough, sitting in my car and waiting for a parking spot to open up close to the door. This was an every single day thing. Aside from work, I did no go anywhere alone.

She would convince family and friends to do activities with her, sometimes even mundane every day tasks and disguised it as a social outing by taking them out to lunch afterward.

“I would play it off as ‘come keep me company and I’ll buy you lunch’,” she said. “It became my norm.”

Collins would see patients come in all the time with service and therapy dogs. She talked to her psychologist about getting one for herself.

“He said, ‘With the kind of PTSD you have and the triggers that you have, mixed with your love of animals, I think you would be an awesome candidate,'” Collins said.

She initially worked with a Central New York program for two years, but unfortunately it did not work out. A provider at the V.A. that she works with saw her struggles in finding a service dog and recommended she check out Puppies Behind Bars after seeing a patient who had a dog through them.

After doing her own research into the program and loving their training model, she contacted them and got a quick response asking her to fill out paperwork to be a potential candidate.

“It was a ton of paperwork. They wanted to know when you have flare-ups, do you punch walls, will you kick their dog, do you have substance abuse issues. They were very thorough,” Collins said.

Her application was accepted in March 2019 and three months later, she was headed to team training with the inmates and dogs. For two weeks, Collins went to the prison and would participate in different activities from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“The first day, heading into the prison, I’m not going to lie, I was freaking out. I was a female heading into an all-male maximum security prison, having no clue what to expect,” Collins said.

Staff members would accompany them into the training room, but the inmates were the ones who ran the entire training, and it was amazing, Collins said.

On the afternoon of her first day, Collins met Allie and the inmates decided, they were a match. Allie, a yellow lab who turns two in September, has changed Collins’ life in the short time they have been together.

With Allie, Collins feels she has gained her independence and freedom back. One of her favorite activities is to go hiking by herself, but it was something she had not been able to do in over a decade. Now, Allie goes with her and Collins once agains finds herself in the therapeutic atmosphere of being out in nature. Collins’ goal for this coming summer is to go on a weekend camping trip with Allie.

Darryl and Patriot

Darryl Vandermark, of Westbrookville, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley has worked in fire service for over 30 years. He has been both a volunteer and paid firefighter as well as a fire service teacher for the state and both Orange and Rockland Counties.

When Vandermark was diagnosed with PTSD, he thought his time in the fire service was done.

“It took me a long time to learn it was a stress injury. I thought I was just mentally broken,” he said. “The stigma in the fire service and military says ‘no, I don’t have PTSD’ and if you do have it, stay away from me because you’re crazy.”

Vandermark wasn’t keen on treating his PTSD with medication and felt that his teaching position of taking firefighter students into fire buildings and making sure they were safe would not mix with psychotropic drugs.

He tried therapy for two years, exercising ways to work through triggers that would bring up the trauma he’d experienced through his daily occupation and serving during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When Vandermark would be triggered within therapy sessions, he said it could take up to two hours to get back to a normal state.

“It was exhausting,” he said.

Someone suggested a service dog and Vandermark set about searching how much it would cost to get a service dog and he said there was no way he could actually afford one.

He finally found a program that would take rescue dogs and train them to be service dogs, but the expense was one he couldn’t afford. For those who needed help financially, this program offered a crowd-funding type platform where participants would tell their story and why they needed a service dog, and the public could donate to help them receive a dog.

Vandermark decided to go ahead and he put his story on the website, which not only included his admission to PTSD, but also, attempted suicide. At the time he was teaching career firefighters around the state and nationwide and was well known in the community. As his story started to spread and be shared, the campaign started to raise money, but Vandermark started to be contacted by people all over the world.

“For the most part they were messages from people thanking me for my service which had its own triggers, but I would also hear from conspiracy theorists who don’t believe what happened at the World Trade Center,” he said. “There was also one that always sticks in my mind, from a man in Britain, who said, ‘How in the world can you go out and save people when you need a dog to save yourself?’ And it really hurt. This really wasn’t helping.”

Vandermark said the process made it hard to be in public and he couldn’t sleep at night from all of the messages coming back to him. He and his wife decided to cancel their participation in the program.

A student had seen Vandermark’s story and wrote to him asking if he was OK. She let him know she volunteered with Puppies Behind Bars and that through their program, you don’t have to put your story out there. Vandermark spoke with his wife and they agreed he would proceed with the application. Before he knew it, he was headed to team training at the prison.

On day two of the training, Vandermark started the day with Patriot, a black lab. The inmates said they were going to show how the dogs help with bad dreams, which Vandermark said is one of the worst things about PTSD. An inmate got into a bed in the middle of the room and simulated having a nightmare to demonstrate what the dogs were trained to do. This event triggered Vandermark.

“One of the triggers is responding to 3 a.m. calls, saying ‘grandpa’s not breathing anymore’ and rushing to someone’s house to be with a family and trying to do CPR and save someone. Watching the demonstration was so overwhelming that they brought me out into another room. That’s when I learned how service dogs really help you,” he said. “Patriot went into action and he got me out of my trigger. He got me out faster than my therapist ever could.”

When Patriot works to get him out of a trigger, he jumps all over Vandermark, acting ‘lawless’ he said until given a command to heel or sit. Vandermark likened it to when firefighters get sent into burning buildings to look for a victim. They never go in alone, they always have a partner.

“Partners communicate with each other; work to keep each other calm. They might be smacking you in the leg with a tool or yelling to you,” he said.

Within 15 minutes, Vandermark and Patriot were ready to go back to work after his trigger episode. He said if he had to work through a trigger like that on his own, the effects would have lasted up to four days. From that moment on, Patriot was matched with Vandermark.

They have been together for a year and a half now and the bond between them has just grown stronger. Before Patriot, Vandermark would seclude himself from the world as being out in public increased the chance that someone would want to stop and ask him about his PTSD and possibly send him into a trigger. Now Patriot goes everywhere with Vandermark, from work to everyday errands.

“He can read what I am doing and sometimes just looks at me as if to say, are you alright? Are you okay? If I can come out of it with just that, we’re good, but if he knows it’s falling apart, he starts going all over the place to keep me grounded,” he said.

Founder, Gloria Gilbert Stoga

Gloria Gilbert Stoga, President and Founder of Puppies Behind Bars, began the program after reading an article about Dr. Thomas Lane, a veterinarian who was running a prison/guide dog program in Gainesville, Fla. She was so moved that she created a similar program of her own.

Stoga said they look for dogs with traceable lineages and the most important trait: confidence. The dog needs to be confident enough to go into all sorts of public places, while simultaneously taking on the emotion of his handler’s PTSD.

About 70 percent of their dogs graduate from the program to lead successful and productive working lives, the rest do not have it in them to become working dogs and are adopted to loving families. They have raised more than 1,200 Labrador puppies in the 23 years in which we have been in operation.

For inmate participants, the goals are to learn self-worth, responsibility, teamwork, trust, and sticking with things when they get hard or when they are not going the way they planned. The hardest part of participation in Puppies Behind Bars is the knowledge that at the age of close to two years, the dogs that the puppy raisers have loved, nurtured, and trained will leave.

“Working with war veterans, first responders, and convicted felons, I have come to see how dogs can truly change people. I know it sounds like a clich\u00e9, but the truth is that I have seen, time and time again: tough people become soft, scared people become confident, quiet people become leaders and angry people become content,” Stoga said. “I have seen that dogs can really bring out the best in people, regardless of their circumstances, and by working together with a common goal — which is to make life easier for first responders and war veterans — the divisions between people on the ‘outside’ versus people on the ‘inside’ begin to blur. All groups come together over dogs, and that creates a cohesiveness which I really don’t think would be possible if dogs were not the common factor.”

Applications for both war veterans and first responders to receive a dog through Puppies Behind Bars can be found on the organization’s website. There you can also find ways to donate to the program or sponsor a puppy in training.


© 2020 Syracuse Media Group