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Last updated 12:42AM ET
March 2, 2021
Prison Programs Trains Service Dogs of the Disabled
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - At the federal prison camp on Maxwell Air Force Base, eight puppies are man's best friends in training.

For about 15 months, a group of inmates works with the puppies to socialize them and teach them commands to prepare them for careers as service dogs to people in wheelchairs.

The Maxwell program is sponsored by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit group that supplies the puppies, coordinates training and places the puppies with individuals across the country. The group's headquarters is in California and it has a regional office in Orlando, Fla., where the puppies go after they complete their training with the inmates. Maxwell is the first federal prison to have puppy training through CCI.

Puppies learn about 35 commands while they live with the inmates, who also groom and feed the puppies. The group takes field trips to the store and other public places to expose the puppies to different environments and teach them how to behave in those settings.

The relationship between puppy and handler is strong and they bond quickly, Judy Fanning said.

Fanning is a volunteer certified to work with service dogs and meets the inmates and puppies weekly for training. She's been training dogs for about 18 years and service dogs for 12 of those years.

"They're used to being with their handlers," Fanning said. "They stay focused on them like eagle eyes."

In February, when the puppies are 16 months old, they'll travel to CCI's Orlando office for advanced training and placement.

"Everyone cries when they load up on the bus to leave, but it's just the best feeling in the world to know they're being sent to someone who needs them," Fanning said.

A main function of the service dogs is to pick things up for disabled people, like their keys or the phone. They also have a special harness that can pull a wheelchair, Fanning said.

"To me one of the most important things about this type of service dog is that they help people in wheelchairs, but they're not necessarily born that way," Fanning said.

Some of the applicants for service dogs have spent their lives in a wheelchair, but some have ended up there because of an accident or disease, she said.

"Training these dogs for disabled people is so helpful. It could be one of the soldiers coming back from Iraq, it could be anybody," Fanning said. "I guess the greatest thing is having a constant companion."

Maxwell prison previously partnered with Southeastern Guide Dogs, which trained puppies for visually impaired people. That partnership lasted from June 2002 to November 2006. But the local coordinator moved away and prison staff contacted CCI to start a new program.

The staff was looking for a more challenging program and the chance to reach a larger group of disabled people, said A. Rabidou, the puppy program coordinator at the prison.

While the puppies are at Maxwell, they visit local veterinarian Dr. Donald C. Goodwin for regular care and emergencies.

A few weeks ago, one of the puppies, Leeta, swallowed pieces of a towel and got very sick.

Fanning said Leeta probably would have died if Goodwin hadn't operated to get the cloth out of her intestines and stomach.

Her stitches came out recently and she's back in training.

Goodwin has been involved with puppy training programs for about 12 years, providing shots, heartworm and flea treatments and general wellness exams.

"I've been blessed, and the least I can do is help my fellow man," Goodwin said.

Service dogs typically work eight to 10 years, Fanning said.

If their owner wants to get a new service dog, CCI will find a home for the retired dog, usually with a family member.

The program is beneficial to everyone involved, Rabidou said.

"It gives the inmates a chance to give back to the community. They feel a sense that they are actually doing some good, they know this dog is going to make a difference in someone's life," she said. "It teaches them responsibility. It gives them a sense of structure, because the puppies are on a schedule. It also gives them skills that they can use when they get out."


Information from: Montgomery Advertiser,

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