Dog Tags®: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us was established by Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) in 2006 to provide service dogs to combat veterans returning home from Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) who have suffered a physical injury, including traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Labrador retriever puppies are raised and trained in prison from the age of 8 weeks until they are ready to be placed with a veteran, which is usually when the dog is between 20 and 28 months of age. When a puppy is matched with a disabled veteran, final training with the vet and the dog continues specific to the veteran’s needs.
Currently, approximately fifty service dogs are being raised in four of our seven prisons. Our service dogs learn the eighty-five commands that are standard in the industry (e.g. retrieving objects, turning on and off lights, opening doors so a wheelchair can pass through, etc), as well as five specific commands to assist our wounded warriors returning with PTSD and TBI.
When Army Specialist April Grossman returned from serving in Afghanistan in 2011, it took six years before she finally felt she had made it home. Depression, insomnia, panic attacks, and negative thinking—symptoms of her struggle with combat and military sexual trauma related PTSD—were all taking a toll on her relationships, her job, and her ability to go out into public. Once the number of medications she was prescribed reached a total of twelve, April decided to apply to Puppies Behind Bars for a service dog.
In July of 2017, April took part in PBB’s team training. Half the classes were held at Downstate Correctional, a men’s maximum-security facility, and April was paired with a beautiful, black Labrador retriever named Waldo. April remembers, “As a survivor of military sexual trauma, the thought of going into a men’s prison frightened me. Unexpectedly, (I realized) these inmates are amazing.” From the inmate puppy-raisers, she learned commands that would help her overcome panic attacks in public.
She was taught never to use the word “no” with Waldo, which helped her rewire her brain to think positively. “Because of their work, I am not only able to live a normal life … but my medication list has gone from 12 to 2. Positive relationships have been built with people around me. Waldo and I have met great friends, we have gone out to restaurants, we shop, and are training for a 5K. We live a happy life!”
On average, PBB accepts only one out of every seven applicants and pairs only fifteen to twenty service dogs per year. In order to receive one of our dogs, a veteran must download our application (see link below), read through the criteria, and submit the application to the PBB administrative office for consideration. Although we contact you within two weeks to tell you that we have received your application, the entire review process takes approximately four to six weeks.
If selected, the veteran must participate in our 14-day “team training” in upstate New York. PBB pays for 100% of the travel and boarding costs associated with the training. Over the course of the 14 days, each client is matched with a dog, learns the commands that the dog knows and learns how to care for the dog. About half the team training is conducted in prison, where the veterans are able to learn directly from the inmate puppy raisers who trained their dogs. In order to graduate from team training, veterans must pass our Public Access Test to demonstrate that the client/dog match makes for an appropriate service dog team. Each graduate of our program returns to his/her home and family as a fully certified service dog handler, with paperwork, identification, and a very special service dog that is trained in 90 commands.
PBB is a rigorous program and is accredited through Assistance Dogs International. We produce well-loved and well-behaved dogs, and we make sure we make the best dog/veteran matches possible. PBB provides routine, extensive follow-up with each of our graduates and retains ownership of the dog for the first five years to make sure each veteran/service dog pairing is effective. PBB also serves as a resource for the veterans in the years that follow, providing support, advice, and feedback.