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Wisconsin inmates train puppies to become service dogs

BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wisc. (KTTC) – When you think of people who are making a positive impact in the world, inmates probably don’t come to mind. But at Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, a group of inmates is doing just that.

“I am a heroine addict. I’m in here for burglaries and possessions.” Josh Uagierach is nearly three years into a 7.5 year sentence. The endless hours spent under a guard tower’s watch don’t offer much hope.

Josh Uagierach is an inmate at Jackson Correctional Institution

“It was really dull, I guess. That’s the best explanation. It was just prison,” he said.

But a Minnesota organization gave the dreary environment a boost of sunshine two years ago in the form of puppies.

Can Do Canines is based out of New Hope, Minnesota. The organization “is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships with specially trained dogs.”

A couple of years ago, the organization launched its Prison Program, which lets inmates help raise the next generation of assistance dogs. The program is active in five prisons across Minnesota and Wisconsin, including the Federal Medical Center in Rochester and the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca.

Five new puppies arriving at Jackson Correctional Institution in Wisconsin

Here’s how it works: “Two carefully-selected inmates are assigned to each dog. Inmates raise the dog, teach obedience. At any given time, Can Do Canines can have 40 to 50 dogs placed in the prison program.”

Willow is one of the new puppies at the prison

According to Can Do Canine’s website, “the dogs are well-cared for and receive around-the-clock attention and training. And at the end of it all, a client with a disability receives a specially-trained dog to help them achieve greater freedom, independence, and peace of mind.”

Jackson has nearly 1,000 inmates, but only about 30 are part of Can Do Canine’s Prison Progam.”They’re so happy to see you. They just love you, they don’t really know you,” said Anthony Rogers, an inmate at Jackson.

For the next year, the puppies will grow up alongside their new handlers in prison and learn obedience skills that will one-day develop them into service dogs. The animals will occasionally leave the prison for a couple days each month with Prison Puppy Foster Home Volunteers to get accustomed with the outside world. After a few days away, they’ll return to their assigned inmates.

Anthony Rogers smiles as he gives basic commands to his new puppy, Nila

“Early on we want to teach it it’s name, get it to really know its name. [We want to] load up the word ‘Nila’ so when she hears that she knows this is important,” said a smiling Rogers.

One thing these men have an abundance of is time, making them ideal candidates to give the puppies that around-the-clock training and attention.

“Everything that this dog’s gonna know, we’re gonna teach it,” added Rogers.

The love between man and dog is evident not just among the inmates, but prison staff as well.

Lizzie Tegels says the inmates do an amazing job with the dogs

“It’s taught them a great deal about responsibility, teamwork, communication skills, commitment, and sticking with a project, even through some of the frustrations that training a dog can have,” said Lizzie Tegels, the warden at Jackson.

The correctional institution tries to offer the inmates different treatment programs. “This was one more tool/program we could try to bring. We’d hope it would have a positive impact on the men.”

However, not every inmate who applies can join Can Do Canine’s Prison Program.

According to Tegels, they only take who they think is best fit. There’s also a lot of other variables that go into consideration to make sure they create a healthy and safe environment for the puppies and inmates, but Tegels wouldn’t go into specifics.

Only about 30 of 1,000 inmates are part of Can Do Canine’s Prison Program

“Everybody loves to see the dogs, run up to them, and pet them. Everybody’s happier here with the dogs,” said James Tucker, who received his new puppy, Xena, one week before the latest litter arrived at the prison.

“You feel like you accomplish something… giving back to the community, after I’ve taken from them so much. It’s a great feeling,” Rogers said while giving his new pup, Nila, basic commands.

If there’s anything this group of inmates has learned during their time behind bars, it’s hope. Even though time may move a little slower for them, Can-Do Canines is helping them make the most of what’s left as they await that much-anticipated day of freedom.

James Tucker has served four years of an 11-year sentence. He says the dogs are the perfect opportunity to keep his mind off the situation

“You’re not just sitting around killing time, you’re actually doing something for other people. It brings a lot of hope,” added Uagierach.

Can Do Canines is always looking for volunteers to help with their animals. You can apply to volunteer as a puppy raiser, prison foster, short-term foster, long-term foster, or as a great start home. To learn more about Can Do Canines, or to volunteer, click here.

Shannon Rousseau

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