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Virginia Department of Corrections — Public Safety First

News: Press Release

For Immediate Release: December 14, 2012 - Contact Lisa E. Kinney, (804) 674-3275

Prison Inmates Teach Puppies, Give Service Dogs Back to the Community — Bland Correctional Center marks 10 years with the Saint Francis Service Dogs Prison Pup Program

RICHMOND — Ten years ago, six puppies arrived at Bland Correctional Center and started a first-of-its-kind program in Virginia designed to prepare the puppies to become service dogs for children and adults with disabilities.

A decade later, the inmates tell a story of the puppies teaching them as much as they have taught the puppies. Inmate participants in the Saint Francis Pup Program have long extolled the virtues of what is today a thriving program that prepares both the dogs and the men for life outside prison walls.

Media are invited to see the Saint Francis Prison Pup Program in action at Bland Correctional Center on Monday, Dec. 17 from 1–3 p.m. Bland Correctional Center is located at 256 Bland Farm Road, 24315.

"My core beliefs and values used to be money, drugs, work, etc.," said one inmate. "I always knew deep down that I wasn’t a bad person, rather a person who made bad choices. This program has given me new core beliefs and principles – honesty, integrity, love, courage and commitment."

"The Prison Pup Program has helped give me direction. Being a part of this program has made me realize that there are greater needs in the world than my own," said another inmate.

The service dogs assist a range of people who have physical disabilities, from individuals with cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis to injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The inmate puppy raisers are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to contribute something so worthwhile to the community and Saint Francis Service Dogs returns the feeling of gratitude toward the inmates.

"The puppy raisers at Bland do an incredible job working with our puppies and because of them, we are able to raise and place more dogs for people with disabilities," said Cabell Youell, Executive Director of Saint Francis Service Dogs, a non-profit organization in Roanoke that serves the state of Virginia and a three hour driving radius of Roanoke. "Saint Francis Service Dogs has a long waiting list of deserving people that need our help and because of the inmates at Bland Correctional Center, we are able to help them much faster."

Saint Francis Service Dogs raises and trains service dogs to assist children and adults with disabilities to become more independent through partnership with a professionally trained service dog. Saint Francis provides service dogs to approved candidates free of charge and presently places ten to fifteen dogs per year. Most of the dogs spend time as puppies in the Prison Pup Program.

Almost all of the dogs in the Prison Pup Program are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. The dogs arrive at Bland as puppies and live with the inmates, all of whom have met certain conduct standards, been hired and received specialized training. To stay in the program, inmates must maintain a spotless conduct record, and most do.

"I have seen many inmates turn themselves around over the years," said Bland’s Institutional Program Manager John Shoda. The inmates live in small rooms with their dogs, allowing for a continuous connection that leads to better training. Saint Francis teaches positive training methods and a staff member visits the prison once a week to assist with any training issues.

The inmate puppy raisers are taught by Saint Francis staff. When the inmate’s job is done and the young dogs are ready, they are transferred into advanced training with a professional dog trainer at the Saint Francis facility in Roanoke. Twenty-four inmates (including a few alternates) care for up to twenty-two dogs. Each inmate candidate is interviewed and selected by VADOC staff. The inmates who work with the dogs are lower security level (1 & 2) offenders. It takes about a year for a puppy to master all it needs to know to move on to advanced training.

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To learn more about the Saint Francis Service Dogs program, please visit: