Service Dogs Trained in Prison Finally Go Home With the Veterans Who Need Them

Puppies Behind Bars trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for wounded war veteran and first responders.

Inmates at a New York prison watched the service dogs they’d trained for two years be presented to the veterans and first responders who need them during an emotional graduation ceremony.

“Emotions run high,” Puppies Behind Bars founder Gloria Gilbert told of the graduation.

Puppies Behind Bars trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for wounded war veteran veterans and first responders. The program currently operates in seven prisons, but the August graduation took place at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County.

For the inmates, it may be a sad day as they say goodbye to their furry friend, but the program brings so much positivity to their lives, Gilbert said. 

“It teaches responsibility, teamwork, sticking with things when stuff gets pretty crappy,” Gilbert said of raising a service dog.

Gilbert initially saw the tremendous effects a program like Puppies Behind Bars could have when she first read an article on Dr. Thomas Lane, who ran the first prison guide dog training program in the ‘90s.

Gilbert said she was so inspired that she quit her job and founded Puppies Behind Bars.

“It’s something that I knew I wanted to do,” she said.

Crystal, an inmate serving a 10-year sentence, said the program changed her life.

“I just didn't care, I was running wild, and now, I've learned to sit still and be patient and humble,” Crystal said. “When you come in here, you're broken, you're all to pieces, you don't know who you can trust, and you can tell this dog anything and he doesn't judge you, he doesn't look down on you, so you mold a bond together and then you know what trust means. “

Crystal knows the dog she trained is going to be a huge help to others, she said. 

Gilbert said the ceremony is a culmination of all of the hard work of the inmates for years and a 14-day training program where the veterans, firefighters and police officers get to acclimate to their new service dog. 

Five new dog owners were excited to go home with their pups afterward.

“I was hoping for this guy so I'm excited. And emotional. I know Crystal [an inmate] has worked really hard, and I want to keep it going for her, and we're going to work really hard,” said Heather McClelland, an active-duty police officer who received a dog named McDonald.

In the future, Gilbert said she hopes to have police officers and firefighters with PTSD get the dogs as well or have the dogs serve as wellness dogs for police departments.

“In today’s day and age with mass shootings, I think that people need to recognize police officers are humans and they bear the brunt of the emotion of being first on the scene.”