A Journey Together

group of dogs on steps

A Journey Together

In service to others, inmates train service dogs. All emerge with lives transformed.

She couldn’t leave her house alone, drive long distances by herself, or enter a dark room. That is, until she was placed with a service dog. Now, with her dog by her side, this victim of a crime has begun to heal from her trauma and find the courage to venture out into the world.

“Her dog gave her the strength that she needed to overcome these obstacles,” Aaron Smith said proudly during a recent TEDx talk in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “She told us that we helped transform her life to the point where she learned to trust people again — something she thought she was never going to be able to do.”

Smith has helped to raise and train more than a dozen service dogs to assist veterans and crime victims with post-traumatic stress disorder. His background, however, isn’t in dog training. He’s an inmate at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution.

Since 2012, nearly 180 inmates at the facility have volunteered their time with Journey Together Service Dog Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization that provides highly trained service dogs at no charge to Wisconsin residents diagnosed with PTSD. Dogs in training reside at the prison, where inmates provide their care and training.

Students from the UW School of Veterinary Medicine are another key partner. Each month, small groups of students travel to the Oshkosh Correctional Institution to present short talks and case scenarios on common dog illnesses, disease prevention, and first aid procedures. Past topics have included tick-borne disease and safe tick removal, heartworm, heat stress, and how to take a dog’s temperature and pulse. The inmates also demonstrate the behaviors they’re currently teaching their dogs; then, students can try their hand at the techniques.

According to Brenda Cirricione, director of training for Journey Together, these veterinary lessons help inmates know what signs or symptoms to watch for in the dogs.

“When the students come in and teach things, the medical reports that come out of the prison are significantly better,” she says. “I have a stronger confidence that the men won’t miss a symptom of a serious condition.”

3 young veterinarian students pose with two service dogs
From left to right, veterinary medical students Alissa Milonczyk, Katie Hausmann, and Mary Montanye with Journey Together dogs-in-training, following a presentation at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution.

The inmates value the students’ time and expertise, studying before students visit and discussing the topics for weeks afterwards, adds Cirricione. “I don’t know that any vet student will be appreciated as much as when they come to the prison.”

Katie Hausmann DVMx’20, who has visited the prison for four years, concurs. “I’ve never seen people so interested in learning,” she says. “This program means the world to these guys.”

Participation in Journey Together is seen as a privilege among the inmates, who are selected through a written application process and group interviews. Using positive reinforcement methods, they teach the dogs more than 100 verbal and nonverbal commands, customized to each client’s needs, from turning on lights to opening doors and locating exits. Along the way, the inmates become highly skilled dog trainers and instructors.

All of the dogs learn to respond to stress signals to comfort a client experiencing anxiety. For instance, when a person bounces a leg or wrings their hands — often-telltale signs of stress — the dog is trained to lay their head or body on the person to apply pressure and interrupt the anxiety event. The dogs are also taught a variety of tricks — an entertaining diversion that can direct unwanted attention away from the future client and their condition.

“We spend a lot of time getting the dogs to really like to learn and work, because we’re going to ask them to work the rest of their lives,” says Cirricione.

The dogs live full-time with the inmates and share their prison cells. Public outings with community volunteers provide the dogs exposure to scenarios not seen in prison, whether that’s complete darkness, busy traffic, or a squirrel darting across a field.

“The men are accountable for everything — care and feeding of the dogs, medication, their grooming,” says Cirricione. The inmates’ dedication to the program can be seen in their willingness to sacrifice limited cell space for the dogs, she adds. “In a prison you have very little space that’s your own and when you give up half of it, it’s a big deal.”

After about two years of training, dogs are then placed with clients — “when the real magic of this program comes to life,” helping people with PTSD “gain a sense of freedom from their psychological prisons,” says Smith.

He shares the story of a military veteran who, after being paired with a service dog, was able to visit a crowded public space for the first time in three years and regain the confidence to return to work. Or a client in a wheelchair who hadn’t smiled in years, but when she first met her dog “her face immediately lit up,” he says. The dog lifted the woman’s spirits and gave her the drive to practice mobility exercises.

Another Journey Together graduate is now a therapy dog at a domestic abuse shelter, comforting victims and displaced children. Yet another client calls her service dog her lifeline, Cirricione says.

We are all men who have hurt people in our past, but we are all men who are willing to come together while we raise and train these dogs and give back to a community we once took from. This program literally shows all of us that we are on this journey together. –Aaron Smith, dog trainer, Journey Together Service Dog Inc.

The program provides renewed purpose for inmates, as well, many of whom also have PTSD. An emphasis on teamwork, empathy, critical thinking, communication, and other versatile skills help the men prepare for life and employment following release. At the Oshkosh Correctional Institution and nationwide, recidivism rates among inmates who participate in dog training programs are significantly less than the general population.

Some inmates have been so inspired by the program that they’re pursuing careers in the pet industry or as veterinary technicians. Smith, for instance, will be earning a dog grooming and dog training certificate from Fox Valley Technical College.

“It means a lot that we’re helping them on that path in life,” says Journey Together student liaison Miranda Elliman DVMx’21. She recalls an inmate who during one of her visits expressed remorse for his past actions and gratitude for the chance to give back to society. “He said, ‘I’m not just serving time for what I did, I’m doing something to better the community.’ That to me was pretty impactful.”

Meghan Lepisto

Photo Credits (2): Brad Cirricione

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