Service-dog training helps inmates and disabled

MOORE HAVEN — A training program that’s placed hundreds of service dogs inside correctional institutions to be schooled by inmates and then put in needy patients’ homes statewide was celebrated at the Moore Haven Correctional & Rehabilitational Facility (MHRCRF) on Thursday, March 21. Warden Mike Holm welcomed more than two dozen participants to the institution’s quarterly Community Relations Board luncheon and praised the Department of Corrections-sanctioned dog training program that is conducted in conjunction with New Horizons Service Dogs Inc. of DeLand. So far at MHCRF alone, 30 dogs have gone through the program and now are with clients.

It’s one of 22 such Canine Obedience Training & Service Dog Training Programs that the DOC oversees in Florida, involving about 20 community partners. New Horizons works with four different correctional institutions. Through these curricula, inmates are assisted in their transitions back to society by focusing on good citizenship, accountability and responsibility. They also provide credentials and work experience for inmates; provide a service to animal shelters and other rescue organizations by getting dogs ready for adoption; and provide institutions with provider-owned emotional support dogs for inmates, including those in mental health units.

The credentialing program recognizes skills the participating inmates learn throughout their time in the assignment, provides a list of the needed general competencies and time frames in which participants can gain them for each level of training and serves as a record that can be provided to potential employers.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Marty Hohmann, coordinator for the New Horizons Service Dogs program in place at the Moore Haven Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility, explains how it works last Thursday at the prison. Warden Mike Holm is at right in the background.

Then the subject matter expert from the community partner, in this case Marty Hohmann from New Horizons Service Dogs, documents their time spent, training hours earned, test results and level of certification. She explained that their Canine Job Assignment Credentialing Program has four levels: handler, basic trainer, intermediate trainer and advanced trainer. On completion of all four levels, a service dog trainer certificate is also available to inmates. They must master each individual level in order to advance; each requires training two additional dogs for 16 weeks, 960 hours minimum. The top level requires 3,840 hours and successful training of eight dogs total over 16 months minimum.

Ms. Hohmann talked some more about the program, then had the inmates file in, leading their dogs, and sit in a line of chairs against one wall while the roomful of observers finished their lunch plates. All the inmates then demonstrated some parts of the training they put the dogs through to prepare them for helping disabled people.

There were a dozen handlers and a dozen dogs, and she introduced them all by their first name and the dog’s. “A couple of them have aspirations to use these skills when they get out into the free world, so this will help them with that. We’re real proud of the program,” Warden Holm said.

She then had the residents show how they’ve trained the animals to help their eventual human clients with various daily life chores, including picking up needed items such as a slipper or TV remote from the floor, fetching trash and taking it to the wastebasket, collecting laundry and even moving it to the laundry room, giving comfort during stressful times and helping a person in a wheelchair to get into it by “bracing” him or her, then even lifting the foot flaps and helping to raise their legs or arms and move them onto those flaps or armrests to settle in the chair (such as for someone who’s lost motor control).

Some of the dogs — all in different levels of the training — were a little more challenged than the others in following orders, so there were a few laughs during the half-hour demonstration, but all of the canines were well-behaved and leashed most of the time. The inmates care for them in all ways, including feeding, regular walking and exercise/play time.

All the dogs are purebred golden or black retrievers. New Horizons has placed more than 700 of them with clients.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
One MHCRF dog program participant briefed observers on the tangible results of their program, which has placed 30 dogs in private service to ailing individuals.

“The staff here are allowed to take dogs home for a furlough, like on the weekends. That way they get out of the institution and are allowed to get some more fresh air. They do get out here every day, but (that way) they’re around other people, around kids and smaller children. We also allow the dog and the handler to go, pretty much free reign, around the facility. So sometimes they go to class with them, they go to the recreation yard with them, walk up and down the hallways, and this actually has a calming effect on the rest of the inmate population, it really does. It’s quite a management tool for us,” Warden Holm explained.

Mr. Holm and Ms. Hohmann then let one inmate address the attendees, because he’d told them he had something he wanted to say.

“The guys in front of you have accepted their faults. They’re paying their debt to society. We’re trying to give back to society. I have a list of dogs that left this very facility in the last two years, and I want you to know where they are and what they’re doing.

“Palm Beach, Florida, 55-year-old quadriplegic; he got a dog named Nike. Kissimmee, 65-year-old quadriplegic, got a dog named Tybee, came right from here. Homosassa Springs, 41-year-old veteran, PTSD, got a dog named Louie, came from here. Orlando, 5-year-old little girl, she has severe autism and she has a dog named Daiquiri, came from here. Brandon, 30-year-old, has traumatic brain injury from a car wreck. He has Neptune.”

After he went through several more of their clients’ situations, he finished by stating that he and all the other men are grateful and happy for the chance to redeem themselves by gaining skills and then giving of them to help others.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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