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Time to train

They enter federal prison as rambunctious puppies and leave their inmate handlers a year later, ready for a guide dog program.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

COLEMAN -- The students sit, hair brushed and looking sharp, as the last notes of Pomp and Circumstance echo off the walls.

Some fidget, looking around for someone familiar. Most sprawl out with a casual cool that belies their youth. They tug at the elastic straps that hold their mortarboards in place.

Then one let's out a bark.

Emmy, Walker, Delta, Cans and Pepper are the five newest graduates of the guide dog training program at the Coleman federal correctional complex, the only one of its kind in the federal prison system.

The dogs arrived as furry bundles of enthusiasm and disobedience. A year with their inmate handlers, and they are ready for the final step in becoming a working guide dog.

"It's just like with real kids," says Julie Aichroth, director of the program. "We are so proud, and now they get to move on."

When similar programs began in a handful of state prisons in the early 1990s, skeptics thought the dogs could be a distraction. Or worse, the inmates would turn out delinquent dogs.

The concerns eased as the programs had one success after another. Many prisons see improved behavior by the dogs' handlers and a renewed hope.

In the outside world, it's hard to find people willing to commit the time it takes to raise one of the puppies. Inmates have nothing but time.

Mac Cauley, a first assistant with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, and other supporters banded together to get the Coleman program off the ground. The first hurdle was to persuade federal corrections officials to drop their "no animals allowed" rule. A few phone calls from Cauley's boss, U.S. Attorney Donna Bucella, got that done.

Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc. provides the dogs and instruction. The inmates work as handlers, training and socializing the dogs every day from the time they are 10 weeks old until about 15 months. After that, the dogs go on to "polishing school" outside the prison for six months of advanced training. The dogs are then placed with the sight-impaired.

"Our mission is to put out the best dogs," said Aichroth, who works for Southeastern Guide Dogs. "That all starts with the inmates."

The handlers are chosen from among the women at the minimum-security work camp facility at Coleman, 75 miles north of Tampa in Sumter County. They must be non-violent offenders eligible to leave the prison grounds for daylong furloughs with the dogs.

It's a yearlong commitment with a lot of grunt work, but the competition to be one of the five or six handlers is intense. The dogs live inside the prison and are the inmates' responsibility. Days start early with morning feeding, kennel cleaning and doggy playtime. Inmates teach the basic commands, such as sitting and staying, and make sure the dogs are housebroken.

To graduate, the dogs must become well-behaved in a variety of situations. The dogs and their handlers make supervised visits to malls, courthouses and downtown Tampa. Often the dogs accompany the handlers to the prison hairdresser, chapel and gym and go to meals in the cafeteria with all the other inmates.

The handlers must wean their dogs from a litany of bad habits.

"Ever tried to put a doggy bone in front of a puppy and get them not to eat it?" said 24-year-old Shannon Tindall, who trained Delta. "That's the easy stuff around here."

The choice to become a handler is not always an easy one. Handlers, who work as volunteers, could have paying jobs with food services.

For Tindall, who is serving 16 months for bank fraud, the benefits far outweighed any downside. She said she has learned how to cope with problems, set goals and work with others in stressful situations. She has earned a certificate in veterinarian assistance and intends to earn her two-year veterinary technician certificate after she is released this spring.

Tindall recalled with a smile the time she put in extra hours when Delta, a yellow Lab, had worms. The bond, she said, was tough to sever as Delta was about to move on.

"Wow, this letting-go thing is a bit harder than I thought," Tindall said before the graduation ceremony.

Sheila Hernandez wept as she described her relationship with Cans, the Australian shepherd lying obediently at her feet. Hernandez got Cans last July as a "rehab project," a dog from outside the prison having trouble with training and socialization.

"He's come a long way," said Hernandez, who has 21/2 years left of a five-year drug conspiracy sentence.

Problem dogs often are given to the prison handlers, a testament to the program's success. The dogs trained in the prison excel in obedience and consistency as they receive constant, hands-on training. The last class graduated four dogs, three of which are now active guides. It's a good average, in line with national numbers, said Aichroth, the program director.

Dogs spend weekends at the homes of volunteers, many of them guards, maintenance workers or administrators at the prison. The weekend visits help the dogs adjust to situations not found in the prison, such as children and other pets.

Impressed with the program's results, Warden Carlyle Holder decided on the spur of the moment at the graduation that his family would be taking Sparkey, one of the six new puppies, home on weekends.

"This program is something we all should be proud of," he said.

The graduates filed out of the ceremony in a tight line, not knowing that their next stop would be a new home, with different handlers. The inmates had tears in their eyes.

Hernandez, Cans' trainer, has been chosen to stay in the program. Her new puppy is Amy. She is tiny, shy and poorly behaved compared with the new graduates. To Hernandez, the new puppies show how far the other dogs have come and all the work that lies ahead. She also knows that a year from now she'll be crying again.

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