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The Power of a Service Dog: Experiencing the paws4people/paws4vets Prison Bump

A few weeks ago, paws4people, a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of those living with serious illnesses or disabilities by utilizing assistance dogs, invited me to attend a prison bump at one of the correctional centers through which they operate the paws4prisons program. DAPHNE, one of IAVA’s newest team members, is a service puppy-in-training through paws4people’s program paws4vets.

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DAPHNE is hosted by the IAVA Washington D.C. office for a few months and her main job right now is to socialize and interact with the world through exposure of sights, sounds, textures and smells of the city. At about 16-20 weeks old, she’ll move to the next phase of her learning, which is in partnership with the West Virginia Division of Corrections.

Dogs like DANPHNE will move to one of five West Virginia Correctional Centers where they will work with inmate trainers over the course of the next 9-12 months to learn both basic and advanced behaviors that will prepare them for life as an assistance dogs. The paws4prisons is an honors program which demands the highest behavior and performance standards of each inmate who participates. All program dogs reside within the prison with their assigned inmate trainers. Over 130 inmate trainers participate in the program, some of whom are veterans themselves. Each of these individuals play a critical role in the development of these service dogs.

After successfully completing the paws4prisons program, the dogs return to North Carolina for Public Access Training which is part of the paws4people Assistance Dog Training Program (ADTP), a certificate program for students attending UNC-Wilmington. The student handlers conduct training with the dogs in various environments, including retail stores, restaurants, offices, schools, parks and public transportation.

The prison “bump” occurs when the dogs are deemed mature enough in their training to participate. This is where the dogs choose their client. The paws4people team observes the dog’s interaction with several clients and determines who the dog has a bond with and the dog and client chosen become a working team. The dog then returns to North Carolina and begins client transfer training which is a customized training process. The dog’s skills are honed to the needs of that client and the client is taught how to use the dog (an important part of any service dog program that all too often can be overlooked).

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The “bump” is what I was so privileged to be a part of a few weeks ago. Words can’t express the power of this event, but I’m going to try my best!

The “bump” takes place over the course of one day. It’s more like a family reunion and a support session combined in one. Staff, volunteers, inmates and clients spend the morning sharing stories of how they became involved with the program, in the case of the inmates, they also share how they wound up in prison. For the clients, they share the story of why they sought out help from paws4people.

This sharing session is raw and emotional. It’s an opportunity to break down walls. The inmates who shared their stories make it easier for the clients to then stand up and share with the group. This session allows the clients to understand and appreciate the role of the inmate trainers in their healing journey and that they’re about to begin with their assistance dog. For the inmates, it makes it easier to say goodbye to a companion who has been with them essentially 24/7 for the last 9-12 months. They can take pride in the work that they’ve done to give back to another person.

This particular session was over the course of two days. I saw six dogs get matched, five with veterans and one with a civilian. Each of these individuals contacted paws4people/paws4vets for a dog that would provide psychological assistance. Some had mobility needs as well. The clients talked about the traumas they had experienced and the challenges they experience now as a result. The emotions in the rooms were very raw and their need was very apparent. Their struggles with suicidal ideations, their challenge to be in public because of the anxiety they experience and the scars of the moral injuries they experienced while serving all came through as they shared their stories. Many tears were shed by the inmates, clients, paws4people staff, volunteers and families in attendance.

The inmates spoke of their lives before prison. Some came from challenging homes while others spoke of how they were spoiled growing up. All reflected on the bad decisions they made and the impact that this program has had on reconnecting them to society. They reflected on the power that comes with giving back and the opportunity that the paws4prisons program has given them. I saw the power of the program myself just in casual conversation with these guys, many of whom are looking to the future, talking about continuing this when they get out. One individual stunned me when he admitted that prison might have been one of the better things to happen to him because it has led him down a path that has allowed him to become a better father to his kids than he ever would’ve been before.

The second part of the prison bump is the actual pairing of the assistance dog with the client. This is almost completely driven by the dog. The program identifies 5-8 dogs that potentially will make a good match with the client. The client is then seated and the dogs are brought out one by one. A panel of several paws4people staff observe. They’re looking for a bond; they can see this through different body postures, signals and behaviors that the dog demonstrates. Watching, it seems the process can be pretty hard on the client. In one pairing, the first two dogs brought out didn’t really approach the client; clearly they were not the right match. Then the third dog came out and jumped right up into the client’s lap and the client literally melted before our eyes. That’s the power of the bump.

During this process, the pride of the puppy raisers, the inmates, the students and the staff who have all contributed to this final pairing is palpable.

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DAPHNE has a ways to go before going through a bump, but as her puppy socializer, I’m already excited to see who she chooses and how she will assist someone in need to become more confident and independent in their daily life.

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