Prison Puppies After inmates raise them, the puppies’ good behavior will lead to a new life on the outside as Leader Dogs. The blind are not the only ones given a new lease on life. by Jennifer Hemmingsen On a dreary day in Iowa, the cluster of squat cement buildings that make up the Fort Dodge Correctional Fa-cility seem to fade into the steel-gray sky. Icy sleet falls on the buildings and covers the bare cornfields surrounding the electrified fence. The Fort Dodge facility is one of Iowa’s largest pris-ons, housing more than 1,000 men serving sentences for serious crimes. They’ve been sent here for taking what they had no right to take: property, a sense of community security, a human life. In here, their lives are reduced to bare essentials and subject to strict routine. In a long, pale corridor, corrections officer Brenda Birchard breezes past inmates dressed in regulation jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts. With the easy familiarity of a woman who knows where she’s going, she passes a set of plate-glass doors and enters the prison’s sparsely furnished library, where more than a dozen inmates sit on straight-backed chairs. Under each chair, calm, alert and quite pos-sibly the last thing you’d expect to see here: puppies. Lions Clubs International’s dedication to sight pro-grams and services is world renowned. For generations, Leader Dogs for the Blind programs have given the gift of independence to those who are blind, visually impaired or deaf and blind. But less well-known is the decade-long partnership between the Leader Dog program and Iowa Prisons. Since 2002, select inmates in a few Iowa prisons have raised Leader Dog puppies for Leader Dogs’ certified trainers in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Inmates have cared for hundreds of pups, teaching them basic commands and preparing them for specialized training and the life of a service dog. The Fort Dodge Correctional Facility has been a part of Leader Dogs since late 2010, giving in-mates an opportunity to give back by helping others. “Their crime doesn’t mean diddly to me,” says Bir-chard, Leader Dogs coordinator for the prison. “The 30 LION FEBRUAR Y 2014 name of this place is Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, not Fort Dodge Discipline Facility.” Raising Leader Dog puppies helps inmates practice skills–like responsibility, patience and putting others’ interests before their own– that will help them be positive members of society when they’re released. A Litter of Six The first partnership between Leader Dogs and Iowa Prisons was at the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City when staff member Randy Kirkbride, a Lion, approached then-warden Jim McKinney with the idea. Leon, an elderly inmate who so far has served nearly 50 years of his life sentence for murder, was one of the first inmates to participate. “I said it would be good, under the circumstances, to pay back a little–not nearly enough–but to do something good for somebody else,” says Leon, who asked we not print his last name. The prison started out with a litter of six. Inmates cared for and socialized the puppies, teaching them 16 basic commands–such as sit, down, come, stay–preparing them for more extensive training from Leader Dogs School’s certified trainers. The partnership was such a success that it since has branched out to Iowa prison facilities in Newton and Fort Dodge. Hundreds of puppies have received their initial training–supporters liken it to puppy kindergarten–behind Iowa prison walls. The Fort Dodge program started in 2010, with five older puppies that “outside” handlers had found difficult to train, says Birchard. In many ways prison life is ideal for puppy training. Inmate handlers at Fort Dodge have plenty of time to devote to their dogs, who accompany them nearly everywhere. If an inmate does have an ap-pointment or work duty where dogs aren’t allowed, there are plenty of “puppy sitters” to offer some relief.