"Sometimes prison can harden a person," said Edward S., who’s held at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester.

But there are few things in the world softer than the fur on a 7-month-old Labrador puppy.

Edward, and nearly two dozen other men in the general population at the FMC, are participants in the Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills Program, also known as TAILS.

"This will make you open up, make you smile more," he said.

Edward said participating in the program has given him more patience and increased his sense of responsibility. Taking care of the dogs also gave him more to talk about with his family. 

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This is the second group of puppies that have been brought to be trained at FMC to become service dogs. The dogs the men are training will go on to serve people who have limited mobility, lost their hearing, have autism or diabetes, or suffer from seizures.

About half of the men who act as handlers for the dogs this time were participants with the inaugural class of dogs. Among the program’s first class of participants was Edward. He wasn't a handler for the second class, but attends and assists with the training sessions when he can. He said taking part in the TAILS program helped him feel more at ease and that it was a therapeutic experience for him.

"You feel good about it," he said. "You feel like you're worth something again."

The program, offered and organized by Can Do Canines, a New Hope-based nonprofit, gives inmates the opportunity to give back to the community through the care and training of the dogs.

"We want to expand the program to allow for more dogs," Warden Steve Kallis said in a written statement. "Our partnership with Can Do Canines has been very collaborative, and they would like to see us expand the program and we are happy to support their mission and vision."

Kaity McGinn, Can Do Canine's prison program coordinator, said the organization would like to expand the program, not just at FMC but at other correctional institutions. The need for service dogs is great, she said, adding the organization has a long list of clients waiting.

"We want, if possible, every dog in our program to go to prison at some point," said McGinn. "It's amazing what these guys can do, even though these handlers are new and they have never formally trained a dog before."

Compared to a volunteer outside the prison setting, the inmates work in a controlled environment with fewer distractions that would take away from training time.

"The fact that they can get them all the way through that advanced training level three in a year is so huge," she said. "We go week by week and we run through stuff. I teach them how to improve and what to work on and they get there."

Programs exist across the region

The TAILS program at FMC is the smallest of the programs that Can Do Canines runs. In total, the nonprofit works in seven correctional facilities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Five are puppy training programs and two are weaning programs with puppies and their mothers. The participants at FMC are volunteers. At some of the correctional facilities, program participation is counted as a job and individuals are paid. Other facilities have it so the program counts toward education credits.

For the men at FMC, they must fit training and caring for the dogs into their work schedules. At times, it requires a collaborative effort, not only between the dogs' co-handlers but the other men in the program and in their housing unit.

The goal is to help inmates change their lives. The program instills a sense of responsibility in the men — and they are all men at the FMC — and helps build skills that translate into job potential in the communities where they will return, according to Kasey Odell, internship program coordinator and advanced care level psychologist.

The program is offered at no cost to FMC, as Odell and Sarah Bergman, a recreation therapist, fit the added duties into their existing workload. All of the items required to take care of the dogs — things like leashes, collars, toys, food and veterinary care — are provided by Can Do Canines.

To take part in the program, the men go through a multi-step process. They must apply and are then screened and interviewed. The men must have no recent behavioral incidents and there has to be at least 18 months left on their sentence so they can stay for the entire program, according to Bergman.

"We put a lot of pressure on these guys," Odell said. "We hold them to high expectations. You’re responsible for the success of the program. Not everyone was supportive of the program."

"They really are under a microscope," Bergman said of the participants.

After 90 days in the program, each human participant undergoes a review with Odell and Bergman to talk about their strengths, as well as things that need work.

' Puppy leave it'

Once the program begins, the men go through an orientation to learn about the work they will be doing and about Can Do Canines. Class meets weekly at FMC, but the men hold training sessions with their dogs multiple times a day.

Last week's class started with warm-up exercises of "puppy leave it." The men would leave a treat for their dog on the ground and get the puppy to leave it. It's an important task, especially considering some of these dogs will eventually be taken to restaurants and tempted by fallen food.

"We're teaching it to become an automatic behavior," McGinn told the men.

Throughout the class, the dogs practiced walking over and ignoring food. And they practiced positioning themselves next to their handlers as though they were standing next to a wheelchair.

The program doesn’t just benefit the nearly two dozen men chosen to participate as handlers or observers. Having the dogs on the FMC campus seems to lift the mood of all those who come in contact with them.

"The dogs cheer people up. Everybody needs that lift," Shawn C. said.

The week after the Post Bulletin visited the class, the dogs were scheduled to go out of the FMC for a two-week foster break. 

While the men can give the dogs intensive training, the reality of their situation means the dogs aren’t exposed to many things. That is where the foster breaks come in. Through those, the dogs are able to practice going out in public, being left alone and meeting children for the first time.

More than dogs

For first-time participants, the novelty of dogs in prison was an immediate attraction.

"How many people get to say you have a dog in prison?" Michael N. said. "The more I learned, it made me want to do it more and more."

"I thought it was awesome," Malik said about his first impression of the program.

Shawn said he has had pets all his life and the training program was something that he could take with him after his release. "The benefits are overwhelming," he said.

"It’s an awesome experience to be able to be part of something," André A. said.

Now in his second time in the program, André said he’s learned patience and responsibility. Taking part in the program means André is no longer just responsible for himself.

"It’s not just a job," André said. "It creates a new lifestyle in prison."

"We’re not just training dogs. We learn a lot ourselves," Shawn said. "We got to do our best."

There are seven dogs in the program at FMC, and each dog has two handlers who divide the work. The men are also housed together. This round of puppies arrived at FMC on Nov. 9. In the few months the labs have been there, they have already made a big impression on their handlers.

"It’s a marketable skill that you learn," Malik said. The program inspired him to do research on the effectiveness of training service dogs in prison settings and has also spurred ideas for future employment after his release.

"Being incarcerated a long time, it takes you away from being socially conscious … You grow a hard shell. The attitude you develop is hard," Malik said. "Being part of this program has opened me up, touched my emotions and made me more social."

"I have a history, but I also look forward to the future." 

More information about Can Do Canines, its programs and how to become a volunteer foster dog family can be found at www.can-do-canines.org.