Gloria Gilbert Stoga
Puppies Behind Bars
Gloria Gilbert Stoga is president and founder of Puppies Behind Bars, a nonprofit organization that uses prison inmates to train puppies to become guide dogs for the visually impaired or explosive-detection dogs for law enforcement. Through her dreams and efforts, Gloria has been able to provide a new "leash" on life for both the inmates participating in the program and the eventual recipients of the working dogs.
For the blind who receive the specially trained dogs, Puppies Behind Bars gives them confidence and freedom to travel independently with safety and dignity. For the law-enforcement officer who receives a trained explosive-detection dog, it provides a partner that helps keep society safe. For the inmates who nurture and train these special animals, Gloria’s program provides a sense of purpose, accomplishment and responsibility by allowing them to care for a small, dependent life.
Today fifty-two women and sixty-one men in six different prisons in three different states are currently raising eighty-five dogs to be either potential guide dogs or explosive-detection dogs. Close to eighty-five percent of these pups pass their tests to go on to get further training. Currently fifty-one are guide dogs throughout the United States and forty-five are explosive-detection canines in the U.S. and abroad. Seven others function as companion and therapy dogs for blind children. They’re a well-traveled bunch. One former prison puppy now works to keep the president of Egypt safe. Another was at Pope John Paul’s funeral. Other dogs are used at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. There are also Puppies Behind Bars dogs at the United Nations.
Certainly inmates at the maximum-security prisons who take part in the Puppies Behind Bars programs must be screened carefully. The inmate has to have a clean prison disciplinary record for at least a year, must participate in facility programs and be considered reliable by prison officials. He or she must also have at least two years left to serve before potential parole, since dogs are with the inmates for a year and a half.
Once chosen for the program, puppies live in their cell and the trainers attend weekly puppy classes, and complete homework and exams. The trainers also swap the puppies so the dogs will be accustomed to different people and environments. But dogs in training need to get out of the prison system, too. A weekend puppy-sitting program means the puppies stay with volunteer host families in the suburbs surrounding the prisons and in New York City at least six times a month. Some of these visits are for several hours, while others are overnight "furloughs."
While the dog’s recipients and inmates obviously benefit from the program, inmates’ families also gain plenty, says Gloria. After the puppies find their way into their lives, inmates finally have something positive to talk about. They share their puppy’s reaction to the first snowfall or how cute they are when they dream. Family and friends see that the person behind bars is giving back to the community.
Even dogs that do not make it all the way through the training program after they are released from the inmates’ care go on to help people. These dogs are given to families with blind children. One boy, a quadriplegic blind child who received "Jack" as a pet, is now able to move his arms to pet him.