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Puppies Behind Bars: A soldier’s best friend

MILLERTON — American Legion Auxiliary Unit 178 in Millerton is raising money to sponsor a service dog for a war veteran. The organization they’re working with, Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), was founded by a resident of the Northwest Corner: Gloria Gilbert Stoga.When Puppies Behind Bars first started, its mission was to train puppies as guide dogs for the blind. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, they also started training dogs as Explosive Detection Canines (EDC). In 2006 they launched a new program called Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us. It is specifically for veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or who’ve had a traumatic brain injury or other debilitating physical injury.Molly Jenks, first vice president of the Millerton auxiliary, said the organization chose to sponsor a dog as a project for their junior members and the community but also “to raise awareness about the plight of returning vets.“The stories of what these dogs can do to help a veteran with PTSD are just incredible,” she added.Service dogs in the Dog Tags program are trained very differently from guide dogs for the blind or other service dogs, such as search-and-rescue or therapy dogs. They all must learn the standard service dog commands such as come, sit, stay and down. And they all must be socialized. But a dog in the Dog Tags program will learn more than 80 commands. Just a few of the tasks they are expected to master are to turn on lights; open doors (including the refrigerator); distinguish between objects and bring the requested item; remind their veteran to take medications; and warn them of an approaching stranger.Long before they get to that level of training, the service dog will start its working life as an eight-week-old puppy living with an inmate at one of six correctional facilities in New York, Connecticut or New Jersey.Puppies Behind Bars purchases the puppies outright from a list of reputable breeders. Not all puppies are suited for a life as a service dog. At the end of their 18 months as a puppy behind bars, they are evaluated. Some dogs develop health issues, making them unsuitable. They must be healthy and free of any disabilities, including allergies and hip dysplasia.Gilbert Stoga was working in New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s office when she decided to start the Puppies Behind Bars program. She credits her inspiration for PBB to Dr. Thomas Lane, a Florida-based veterinarian who, every day on his way to work, passed the state prison in Gainesville. He saw the inmates standing around and thought they could be doing something productive and useful. He worked with the prison to start inmates training canines as guide dogs.Gilbert Stoga read an article about the program he had developed, and went to see him and study his methods. The program benefits both the inmate and the veteran. Working with inmates confined to medium- and maximum-security prisons, because they generally have longer terms of incarceration, the program is designed to contribute to the inmates’ social rehabilitation. An inmate must meet fairly strict criteria before they’re welcomed into the PBB program. The puppy then comes to live in the inmate’s cell and goes everywhere he or she goes within the prison community.And the inmate must be committed to training the dog.Gilbert Stoga said, “I am constantly bringing in articles about the soldiers that describe what they’re going through. We want the inmate/trainer to understand why we give the commands and how they will be used. “They have to take quizzes, and tests on a regular basis and read a lot of books. We give them homework. “Sometimes the puppy isn’t cut out for the work; and sometimes the inmate isn’t either.“We don’t consider the inmate to be a trained trainer until they’ve graduated one puppy. But we want them to learn and work with multiple dogs.”PPB also pays for correspondence courses for the inmates in veterinary assistance, animal grooming and training, so that when they are ready to be paroled they will have some real life-skills they can take with them.Just as the inmates are carefully screened before they are entrusted with a puppy, the veterans are also carefully screened before they receive a service dog. “A dog can be a complication,” Gilbert Stoga said. “It is not a magic wand. It’s a tool. If they can’t take care of themselves, then they won’t be able to take care of a dog.”In addition to the requirements regarding the war and the disability, they also must be in a stable living situation, be free of any drug or alcohol addiction for at least a year, be able to afford the cost of maintaining the dog, not have more than one dog already in the home and — most importantly — be committed to keeping up with the dog’s training.When they are first matched with a dog, they will spend two weeks at an on-site training facility, to get acquainted with the dog and learn how to communicate with it. After that, PBB has frequent check-ins to make sure that everything is going OK. Eventually those visits are reduced to an annual check-in.The organization has an enormous amount at stake in making sure that the match is a good one at every step of the way. A service dog will cost PBB, on average, $26,000 during its lifetime.So far, 39 dogs have graduated and been placed into service and PBB has 85 puppies in training. Since all of PBB fundraising is private, it is helpful when organizations such as the American Legion Auxiliary Unit in Millerton and private individuals sponsor a dog.To contribute to the auxiliary unit’s sponsorship, contact Molly Jenks at 518-789-6738 or send a check to the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 178, PO Box 22, Millerton, NY 12546. To contact Puppies Behind Bars go to www.puppiesbehindbars.com.

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