CICF News / 2013 / January / News Post
January 31, 2013
Doing Time with Canines

“Dependable Retrieve. Good with Wheelchair. Reliable Recall. Slow & Steady Gait. Solid Brace.” Every job hunter knows the value of stating specific skills on a resume. So, when Deb, an inmate at Indiana Women’s Prison completed a resume in 2012, she listed five key skills that she hoped would make the resume stand out.

Those distinctive skills weren’t hers, they were Blitzen’s. Blitzen is a yellow Labrador retriever, born on Christmas Eve in 2009. In his short life, he lived at the Plainfield and Rockville Correctional Facilities before traveling to the Women’s Prison. But Blitzen wasn’t doing time. He was learning to fetch, to feel comfortable around wheelchairs, and to recognize and alert humans when someone has low blood sugar. His handlers - inmates in those correctional facilities - also learned that he has some challenges with food obsession and excitability around other dogs. 

Emily Shyrock volunteered with ICAN as a teen and later worked as a part-time client services coordinator with the organization. After contracting Lyme Disease, Emily was partnered with an ICAN dog, who supports her in her role as the Disability Services Coordinator at the University of Texas - Austin.

Blitzen and his handlers were paired through the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN). Since its founding in 2002, ICAN has focused on a three-part mission. First, carefully screened adult inmate-handlers train service dogs, living with them 24 hours a day. Second, working with ICAN staff and handlers over two years, dogs develop service skills matched to their temperaments. Finally, those dogs are placed with children and adults with disabilities, supporting their independent and productive lives. Based on the program’s success, ICAN received a grant in October 2012 from The Indianapolis Foundation to expand their programming.

Models of Good Behavior

At three different prisons in Indiana, ICAN handlers work directly with future service dogs. For many of these inmate-handlers, the program offers them a way to reconsider discipline. ICAN exclusively uses positive reinforcement. No hands-on corrections or jerks of the leash are allowed. Handlers use clickers, rewards and redirections to guide dogs through the training process.

ICAN’s focus on positive training is designed both to nurture dogs and to help handlers develop positive communication skills. Regardless of gender, a disproportionate population of prisoners report having been both victims and perpetrators of abuse. Learning to work with dogs in a positive way helps prepare handlers for healthy work and family relationships.

“Our curriculum is focused first on the offender,” says Sally Irvin, ICAN founder. “We talk about conflict resolution. We talk about positive communication and teamwork. We have an interview and screening process that is a lot like a job application experience.”

For many prisoners, those lessons echo throughout their personal life.

“One of our handlers, Jason, was matched with a dog, Luke, when he was just a puppy,” says Irvin. “He told me, ‘I have to thank you, for giving me Luke – it’s made me a better parent to my children.’ We get to see the most wonderful growth.”

Leaving Prison

After completing two years of training, ICAN dogs are placed with children and adults that have a wide range of disabilities. Many ICAN dogs work with people who have mobility limitations including cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. Several dogs who excel at simply being comforting have been placed with children who have autism or Down Syndrome. Some dogs, like Blitzen, have the ability to detect low blood sugar, and help those who have diabetes.

ICAN places an emphasis on dog temperament and interest in training. As founder Sally Irvin describes, "We want to have happy, satisfied workers, just like when you hire someone."

“We placed one dog, Yankee, with a veteran with mobility issues,” says Irvin. “Right now, we have three or four veterans with a combination of mobility and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on the waitlist – an initiative that we’re working on.”

Dogs aren’t the only ICAN participants who find meaningful work outside of prison. One handler, Sean, went from inmate handler to released offender and, ultimately, to a staff person at a residential facility for addiction. After applying to ICAN, Sean was paired with Cubby, a facility dog who welcomes new residents to the facility, providing comfort during an often scary time.

“Sean transformed himself while he was a handler,” says Irvin. “And after he was released, he came back to volunteer with us – up to 20 hours a week. He’s so great for our handlers, because he’s been where they are, and he’s worked hard to succeed, both in ICAN and after his release.”

Read more about The Indianapolis Foundation and other CICF grants.

Read more about ex-offender re-entry and one community center's efforts to support re-entry.

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