Behind bars, bond between inmate and service dog grows

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ICAN prison training program for service dogs

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—Inside several central Indiana prisons, a unique program uses inmates to train service dogs for people with disabilities.

Indiana Canine Assistant Network, a nonprofit, started the service dog training program more than a decade ago.

Dogs rotate between prisons based on the level of training of their inmate handlers. Puppies typically start at the facilities with the shortest sentences and the least trained offenders. Right now, young pups start at one of the Pendleton’s Men’s Prisons and stay there from four to 18-months old.

The more advanced and specialized training happens at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Dogs learn how to do a wide array of tasks from leading and guiding, to retrieval and alerts. The handler-dog relationship is intense: they spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with each other, sharing a cell and training during the day.

Offenders are screened and undergo thousands of hours of training before they can become a service dog handler.

The program not only results in highly skilled service dogs, ICAN says it provides offenders with an opportunity to receive additional job training and employment skills that could reduce the chances of re-incarceration upon their release.

Meet the Handlers: Alkeia Blackmon

Alkeia Blackmon works with a yellow Labrador Retriever named Nitro.

For the past five of her 17 years in prison so far, Blackmon has worked as a handler for the ICAN prison program.

“It humanizes us,” Blackmon explained, “it changes everything, everything, the way we see ourselves, the way that we think our family sees us, the way others see us. It’s an amazing program.”

Blackmon is not a self-described “dog person.” In fact, she says she had never had a dog or knew anyone with dogs growing up. She spent the first few years of her 110 year sentence admittedly selfish, finishing her college degree and trying to find ways to make it through.

When Blackmon learned about the ICAN dog training program, she decided it was time for a change. She applied and was accepted.

“You really have to strive to find the positive things in here and this is one of the most positive things I’ve done

Nitro and Blackmon have developed a strong bond. He’s nearing graduation, and Blackmon knows it will be bittersweet when she passes him along to an ICAN client.

“We know why we’re training then, we know what we’re doing, we all have the same common goal and when it’s time to give them away, yes, we miss them. But the cycle starts right over again,” Blackmon explains.

Like many other inmate handlers, Blackmon says there are tearful moments they all share at graduation, but they do it because they see how the dogs they train go on to change lives.

Meet the Handlers: Heather Asher

Heather Asher has been in and out of prison five times over the years for a series of drug related convictions. For the past year, Asher has been a handler working with two dogs, Simon and Koontz.

“I came to this program to be a better person and a better mother,” Asher said she knew about the ICAN prison program before but she didn’t feel ready to get involved. This time around she says she came to the program to find herself.

Asher’s first match was a dog named Koontz, after fallen Kokomo police officer, Carl Koontz, who was killed in the line of duty in 2016. The dog was sponsored in Koontz’s honor.

Asher also works with a second Labrador named Simon, who she got when he was three months old.

“I can’t even describe the changes that I’ve made or the relationship and the bond that I’ve built with this dog,” Asher added, “it’s indescribable.”

The reaction to the program is similar amongst handlers; they talk about how it changed their outlook, gave them hope and purpose, and inspired them to do more upon their release.

Heather Asher will finish her prison sentence in March of 2018, in time to see one of her two service dogs-in-training graduate. She says the lessons and feeling of self-worth she gained through ICAN will make this sentence her last one.

From Prison to Client:
In the final months of a service dog’s prison training, they’re matched with an ICAN client. The training becomes more specific and geared towards the needs of the individual with a disability who will take over the dog upon graduation.

ICAN clients pay $1600 for the dogs, while the training can cost upwards of $25,000 per dog. ICAN’s pups are sponsored and trained through donations made to the organization, so that their new owners don’t undergo huge financial burdens to obtain a service dog vital to their disability.