MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - A prison is typically not the first place you would think of to raise and train a puppy. However, for several prisons around the Midwest, including right in Marquette, that's exactly what's happening.
"The prisoners are really enjoying it," said Jim Rankin, a Sergeant at the Marquette Branch Prison. "Some of these prisoners haven't pet a dog in years, and it's a very new experience."
Banjo and Autumn are two puppies who moved into the Marquette Branch Prison at the end of October. Now, they'll be trained by prisoners for a year before they are relocated to someone in need as service dogs through the Leader Dogs for the Blind Program.
"The ultimate goal for a Leader Dog is for the dogs to be assigned to someone who is visually impaired or blind, and then they'll be a service dog for them," said Sgt. Rankin.
Though these are the first two dogs in Marquette, Leader Dogs has implemented the Prison Puppies Program into 11 correctional facilities around the Midwest, with 8 of those facilities in Michigan alone.
The dog spends 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with their assigned handler, training to acquire foundation skills which can be as simple as basic commands like "sit," "stay," and "come." However, these skills also go deeper, and the dogs must learn manners, socialization, exposure, and understanding.
Though many inmates want to become a handler, not everyone is awarded the responsibility. Each prisoner is required to fill out an application, which goes into understanding their history and the crime they committed. All prisoners with animal-related crimes are excluded from being able to apply. At the Marquette Branch Prison, the application process was even more rigorous.
"We talked to staff that interact with the prisoners on a daily basis, we graded them on their interviews, and then we had Mental Health do a screen on them as well," said Sgt. Rankin.
However, it's not just the dogs that are receiving training. The inmates are learning life lessons as well.
"The ones that are working one-on-one with the dogs, it's a whole new learning experience for them," said Sgt. Rankin. "I've been telling them, the puppies are teaching them as much as they're teaching the puppies right now."
Organizers of the Prison Puppies Program say inmates raising the dogs develop more patience, empathy, selflessness, and self-esteem, and staff at the prisons have noticed a boost of morale throughout the facility for all.
"The results have been so positive," said Melissa Spooner, Coordinator of Prison Puppies. "We have higher graduation rates of dogs that are raised in a correctional facility, than ones raised in a home. What we've found is that it's a win-win-win-win. It's a win for leader dogs, it's a win for the inmate, it's a win for correctional facilities, and ultimately, it's a win for the client. So that continues to be our motivation to grow our initiatives for Prison Puppies."
Banjo and Autumn will stay at the Marquette Branch Prison until October of 2017, and the prison has been tentatively scheduled with Leader Dogs to receive two more puppies in January. There is no cost associated with inmates taking on a puppy, as Leader Dogs for the Blind covers all of the supplies and vet costs needed to take care of a dog. For more information on the Prison Puppies Program, visit leaderdog.org/prison-puppies
Also, it's not just inmates who can take on the challenge. Anyone can raise a Leader Dog for the Blind in their home. For more information on how to volunteer, visit leaderdog.org.