February 11, 2007

Puppies Behind Bars

We were invited to a book signing last week to celebrate the publication of our friend Dr. Karen "Doc" Halligan's book "What Every Pet Owner Should Know". Doc Halligan is a veterinarian in Venice, California, but her reputation extends nationwide thanks to her frequent appearances on television and radio programs, her leadership in the SPCA/LA and her volunteer work with the many pets hurt and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

The New York stop in the book signing tour was a special benefit for a remarkable program called "Puppies Behind Bars". Puppies Behind Bars is the vision of Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who, in 1997, persuaded the administration at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to allow a select group of inmates to participate in a radical experiment. What Ms. Gilbert Stoga was proposing was a novel plan to teach carefully screened inmates to raise service dogs for the disabled and explosive detection canines for law enforcement. The prisoners would be totally responsible for the care and training of puppies who would, upon maturity, be assigned as a guide dogs or bomb sniffing police dogs. Ten years later, this program is an unqualified success and has been introduced in other prisons around New York State and across the country.

What I find remarkable about this project is that it is a "win-win-win" situation. The inmates, often murderers serving life sentences, are given a chance to do something really good while at the same time bonding with a living creature. It is often the most loving relationship they have ever experienced. The recipients, either blind or otherwise disabled, get a beautifully trained animal who affords them a freedom to live their lives that would otherwise be impossible. And the explosive detection canines protect the lives of ATF or Police Officers as well as innocent civilians who might be killed or injured by a bomb. It is a mutually rewarding experience for all concerned.

The book signing tour hit New York in the middle of one of the coldest spells in recent history, but the atmosphere created by these wonderful dogs and their handlers inside the hotel meeting room was enough to create a warmth that enveloped all the attendees - both human and the four-legged variety!

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