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May 29, 2010

Stephanie Salter: A good story from the Indiana Department of Correction

TERRE HAUTE — The last time I visited with my friend, Donna Stites, in the Indiana Women’s Prison, she brought a guy with her — blond, big-shouldered and very handsome. His name is Dino.

Dino is almost 2 years old, a strapping yellow Labrador retriever who is a dog-in-training in one of the most wonderful activities on the face of God’s green Earth. The program is called ICAN, which stands for Indiana Canine Assistant Network. It was founded in 2001 by Sally Irvin, who got her Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy from Purdue.

As dog lovers know, a dog unto herself or himself, is a fairly perfect creature, the embodiment of unconditional love, loyalty and companionship. An assistance dog is all of that elevated to a near-divine degree. Depending upon the need of a recipient — all of whom have physical or developmental disabilities — a trained ICAN dog can perform any of the following functions for his or her owner:

n Pick up and return dropped items;

n Be the go-between for exchanges between the owner and another person, such as mouthing over (as opposed to handing over) a bank deposit to a teller or money to a store clerk;

n Open and close doors;

n Turn lights off and on;

n Pull up the bedclothes;

n Pull clean laundry from a dryer; and

n Help an owner get dressed or undressed.

The first ICAN dogs were trained at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, but the program now takes place at Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) in Indianapolis and the correctional facilities in Branchville, Rockville and Plainfield.

Many communities in the United States have assistance dog programs that involve incarcerated inmates, but Indiana’s is one of only three, according to ICAN, in which clients actually come into the prisons for the Team Training sessions that teach them how to work with their dogs.

The inmates — a select few from each prison’s population — are the dogs’ “handlers.” During their many months with a dog, be it at the puppy, teenage or finishing school stage, inmates live and sleep with their trainees and are responsible for them all day and night, seven days a week.

One of the assistance dogs who graduated from IWP is so in tune with his client owner — a child with brittle bone disease confined to a wheelchair — he actually sensed that she had fractured a bone when she simply reached behind her own back. The dog managed to protect the girl from an unknowing person who was approaching for a hug and to alert the girl’s mother who had no idea of the injury her daughter had just suffered.

Just recently, a “courthouse” dog, trained to accompany children who must be interviewed in legal proceedings, proved her empathic skills. A white “Golden-Doodle,” Maya, waited nearby as an autistic boy was interviewed by a county prosecutor. When the questions turned to the alleged abuse he’d suffered, the child shut down and couldn’t talk. Maya sensed his stress, moved toward him and began to nuzzle his hand in comfort.

For Donna, who is 47 and has been incarcerated for more than half her life, being accepted into the ICAN program is a long-held dream realized. She has worked for and obtained just about every academic degree available to inmates, including veterinary assistant.

Donna was in a wheelchair the most recent morning I visited. A serious diabetic, she also receives dialysis three times a week. But when she rolled out of the search area with Dino in tow, she was ebullient. She had just learned that she had passed her probationary period and soon would be getting a dog of her own to train.

Dino has another handler, who’d generously loaned him to Donna for my visit. But, as if they’d been pals since his birth, Dino responded to Donna’s commands to perform several actions, including “cross,” which is a down-stay in which the dog lies on his tummy and crosses his front paws. Each time he obeyed, Dino was rewarded with a little pellet of food from a pouch Donna kept on our visitor’s table.

When a toddler visiting his inmate mother became adventurous and took a stroll around the visitors room, he warily approached the big lab. “Dino, down,” Donna said, and the dog stretched on the floor. “Now, he’s more your size,” she told the little boy.

Irvin, ICAN’s founder and executive director, has seen nearly 74 dogs’ worth of positive effect on inmate handlers and ICAN clients since the program began. Preference is given to children and adolescent clients, but ICAN dogs have gone to disabled veterans and adults with disabilities. A couple of dogs currently are in the chute for special training in detecting big spikes and dips in the blood sugar of diabetics. (Their keen sense of smell tips them off.)

Training an assistance dog from puppyhood takes two years and costs about $17,000. Clients pay $950 for their lifelong companion, and can bank the money in an account with ICAN as they wait for their dog to complete all studies. The program is funded by private donations and grants and depends almost entirely on volunteers. (Visit icandog.org or phone (317) 250-6450 to request information.)

Obviously, ICAN clients benefit the most from the program, whether a dog is in a private home or a hospital or therapy facility. But, as Irvin and IDOC staff have seen, the effect on inmates, female and male, is profound. The ICAN website explains:

“Handlers develop responsibility and accountability, compassion, team work, pride in their achievements, self-esteem, unconditional love, discipline and use of logic over emotion to achieve goals.” Prisoner handlers also develop marketable skills that can help them find employment when they are released.

Equally as important, the inmates get the incalculable benefit of knowing they’re doing something that reaffirms their humanity and helps to remind them that — like each of us — they are more than their worst mistakes.

Irvin said the most difficult part of running the ICAN program is breaking through many people’s automatic condemnation of all prisoners. A story about ICAN earlier this year in an Indiana newspaper, she said, drew scores of ugly, hate-filled messages in the online readers’ comment section.

“Raising awareness is the hardest part, getting people to truly understand that it’s a good thing to do this program in prison,” Irvin said. “If you throw these people [the offenders] away, you’re not doing the communities they will go back to — or our society, in general — a favor.”

That’s something the dogs, of course, already know. 

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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