Puppies For Heroes
Podcast #94 — Aired May 30, 2016

This week on BetterWorldians Radio, in honor of Memorial Day, we’re talking about Puppies Behind Bars, a non-profit that trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for wounded war veterans. Our guest is Puppies Behind Bars Director of Development, Eric Barsness. Eric will tell listeners how Puppies Behind Bars brings the love and healing of dogs to hundreds of individuals every year.

 

 

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Eric Barsness
Director of Development, Puppies Behind Bars

Eric Barsness is Director of Development at Puppies Behind Bars. Eric joined the staff of Puppies Behind Bars in February 2009. In addition to handling grant submissions and donor relations, he works closely with founder Gloria Gilbert Stoga on a range of projects and issues.Eric also does many public speaking engagements and helps socialize puppies for the organization. Prior to joining Puppies Behind Bars, Eric worked at Condé Nast Publications for 18 years.

 

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi. Welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I'm Ray Hansell, joined today by my co-host, MarySue Hansell. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called 'A Better World.'. It rewards players for doing good deeds, while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. To date over 40 million good deeds have been done in 'A Better World' around the world by more than 4 million people. Good deeds include expressions of gratitude, random acts of kindness, sending notes to real-world sick kids, just to name a few. This week, on BetterWorldians Radio, we're talking about Puppies Behind Bars, a non-profit that trains prison inmates to raise service dogs fro wounded war veterans and explosive detection K9s for law enforcement. The puppies enter prison at eight weeks and live with their puppy-raisers for up to 28 months. As the puppies mature into well-loved, well-behaved dogs, their raisers learn what it means to contribute to society rather than take from it. Our guest today is Eric Barsness, Director of Development at Puppies Behind Bars. Eric joined the staff of Puppies Behind Bars in February 2009. in addition to handling random missions and donor relations, he works closely with founder, Gloria Gilbert Stoga on a range of projects and issues. Eric also does many public speaking engagements and helps socialize puppies for the organizations. Prior to joining Puppies Behind Bars, Eric worked at Condé Nast Publications for over 18 years. Hi Eric, thanks for joining us today at BetterWorldians Radio.

Eric
Hello Ray. It's a real pleasure to join you here. Thank you for having me.

Raymond Hansell
You're very welcome. So, tell our listeners, what does Puppies Behind Bars do and a little bit about how the organization actually got started?

Eric
In your excellent introduction you conveyed our mission, which is to train inmates to raise service dogs for wounded veterans and explosive detection K9s for law enforcement and that pretty much sums up what we do. The 'how' we do it is slightly more complicated and involved. We were founded in 1997 by Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who is still our president, and still very much involved in training the inmates and training the dogs. When we started out, back then, Gloria just brought five puppies into Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, which is the only women's maximum security prison in New York State. The purpose, initially, was to train those dogs as guide dogs for the blind. They were dogs, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, that guide dog organization, didn't think we'd make it and Gloria said, 'Well, let us try with these puppies.' and three of the five that had been rejected, wound up being successful guide dogs. So everyone sort of realized that this could work and Guiding eyes let us raise a lot more dogs for them over the next few years and the program expanded into more prisons, got bigger. In 2001, after the events of 9/11, one, there was an increased need for explosion detection K9s around the country; and two, Gloria and the organization really wanted to find a way to contribute and give something back to our first responders. We added, at that point, the training of explosion detection K9s. There was a side-benefit in that, aside from those dogs doing valuable work, explosion detection K9s tend to have a very different personality than guide dogs and service dogs do. We found that some of the dogs that didn't prove so well-suited to guide dog work at the time made a really smooth career transition to becoming explosion detection K9s. It made the program more efficient. It meant that more of our dogs could graduate as working dogs. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going on and more and more veterans were coming back and it became clear that aside from many physical injuries, a huge number of these veterans were facing an affliction called 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder' or psychological injury, if you will. Some of them have traumatic brain injury from IED explosions. So, in 2006, Gloria started tweaking the way our dogs were trained and phased out the guide dog training and transitioned to the training of psychological service dogs, specifically for veterans with PTSD. Also, these dogs learnt a full range of service dog commands so that they could handle almost any physical injury or disability as well. The training takes a number of years so the first dog wasn't paired til 2008.

Raymond Hansell
How are the dog trainers actually selected?

Eric
Dog trainers start by volunteering. They have to be in one of the current five prisons where we're already training dogs. They step forward, let their prison authorities know that they're interested and the prison authorities have a set of guidelines from us that they check out first. The inmate can't have had any disciplinary infractions within the last year. They have to do a psychological profile. They can't be guilty of a crime that has involved harming children or animals. But if the prison authorities think that they check out and think that they are a reasonable candidate, the inmate is then interviewed by our staff. If they seem like a good fit they move into the housing unit, where are inmates are all housed together with puppies and they begin attending weekly classes and doing all the homework assignments and exercises and helping the inmates who do have puppies under their charge. Usually by about six months, it's clear if they're going to be successful or not and they, at that point, might be interested for their own puppy. It's a lot of hard work, the inmates don't get paid. They have to still do whatever their regular prison job is - and most inmates and most prisoners do have a job tat they have to go to everyday. The dog training is on top of that. they bring the dog with them to whatever their prison job is. so they have to work really hard. If they don't meet and stick with the criteria they can get kicked out - some of them, sadly, because they didn't realize how much work it would be.

Raymond Hansell
How do they actually benefit from your perspective. How do the trainers benefit from being part of the program?

Eric
I think they benefit in a tremendous number of ways. One, they gain a really concrete valuable job skill. They become expert dog trainers and they even receive a certificate from the New York State Department of Labor after they've successfully completed 18 months in our program, certifying that they are an experienced dog handler. They, aside from the skill, benefit from that unconditional love that puppies provide. Any one of you or your listeners who has a dog or is around dogs know that dogs just love you, whoever you are, whatever you do and they're always there for you in a way. Especially in the harsh and cold environment of prison, having that unconditional love is a tremendous reward. I think probably the most significant thing they gain is a sense of purpose and a sense that they can actually make a positive contribution with their life. These are people in medium or maximum security prisons who have committed serious crimes. We can't pretend that their lives have always been great and they've always been making good contributions. They've done something very wrong at some point. But we believe that people can change and this program gives them an opportunity to manifest that change and really have a positive result of their efforts.

Raymond Hansell
That's fantastic. We interviewed somebody recently - I guess within the last month - that basically was working in this capacity with prisoners to train them in restaurant skills and actually bring them in, when they were out of prison, into a restaurant training programs and pay them reasonable wages, competitive wages. So, they're almost looking forward to being able to come out and have some kind of opportunity and I think that it seems, wherever you turn, you see a tremendous amount of retail outlets and online outlets that are attending to the nurturing of pets and particularly puppies. so it looks like there will be an opportunity for those people who move from this into the real world and have a really very valuable skill. It really sounds terrific from that standpoint, but I can also see the energy that you're exuding to talk about the positive benefits of just the love going back and forth, and the self-esteem that emanates from all the good that you're doing with all these prisoners, and also for the puppies as well. Tell us, what's life look like from the puppies' point of view? How does the puppy respond to being trained?

Eric
The puppies, for one thing, certainly don't know that they're in prison. Our puppies are so well cared for. they enter prison at about eight weeks of age and from that point they have a dedicated loving companion, 24 hours a day. they're in an environment where there are a lot of other puppies to play with because our facilities have anywhere from 8 to 25 puppies in them at any given time. The age range is from 8 weeks to two and a half, three years old. The puppies have three hours a day of playtime with other dogs. All the facilities, even though it's within the prison gates, they provide outdoor rec areas for the dogs. The dogs run around and in the grass or the snow or play in the key pool and we really have a great time. Their training is spread through the day, we don't want to tire them out or get them too bored with the commands - usually a command is repeated three times, and then dropped and go play for a little while and maybe move onto another command another hour later. so, it all ends up being a game for them. these are really happy dogs.

Raymond Hansell
That's terrific. One more question before we go to the break. I want to ask what's it like for the trainers when the puppy 'graduates'?

Eric
I think it's a really mixed feeling. On the one hand, they are really sad to say goodbye to these dogs that they love so dearly and that they've known since they were eight weeks old. On the other hand, they're incredibly prod of what they've done in training the dog and of what the dog is going to do - either in protecting the public, or in transforming the life of a wounded veteran.

Raymond Hansell
Do they sign up again for this duty because it's been a positive experience?

Eric
In almost every single case. The way it works is, when a puppy leaves the program, the inmate raiser can take three months off if they want to but it's very common for them to say, 'Oh yeah, I'll take three months off.' and then two weeks later, 'Okay, I'm ready, if one's available.'. we have a lot of raisers who are in with long sentences who raise dogs for us over and over again. They're of course our most experienced and talented, or skilled, raisers I should say - it's not an innate talent but they got it from experience - so they can mentor the younger people who have joined the program more recently.

Raymond Hansell
Wonderful program, wonderful program. We need to take a short break right now but when we return, we'll talk more about Puppies Behind Bars, with Eric Barsness and co-host, MarySue Hansell. In the meantime, if you're a fan of BetterWorldians Radio, you should check out our game on Facebook called 'A Better World.' A Better World encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players do things like express gratitude; share random acts of kindness; send get-well notes to real-world sick children and more. We'd like to congratulate our players in A Better World for a successful April challenge with the Kelly Anne Dolan Memorial Fund. Because you reached our Do-Good goal, we released funds to help support families caring for children with very serious illness. This month we're excited to announce that Emily's Entourage is our charity partner of the month of May. That's progressing very ncicely. When our players complete the God Deed challenge this month - which they're well on their way to doing so - we will release funds to help accelerate research for a cure for cystic fibrosis, with a focus on rare mutations. You can find out more about us and play at facebook.com/abetterworld. We'll be right back.

Raymond Hansell
You're listening to BetterWorldians Radio. We're speaking with Eric Barsness, with Puppies Behind Bars. Now, let's welcome back Eric and my co-host, MarySue Hansell.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Eric.

Eric
Hi MarySue, hello again.

MarySue Hansell
Really nice to have you. I enjoyed listening to the first segment and I was saying it's so inspiring and wonderful to know that people can be helped - prisoners and the veterans. You talked a bit about several different causes in the past but today your group is focused on the dope tag program, which serves combat veterans. Can you tell us more about that program?

Eric
Certainly. That is our biggest program. Most of our dogs in training are being trained for that program. The Dog T.A.G.S. Program, which I think I mentioned, began in 2006 when we started shaping the way our dogs were trained with this purpose in mind. The first dog for that purpose was ready to graduate in 2008. The dogs in our Dog T.A.G.S. Program learn close to 100 commands. We're always adding so it might be up to 102 or 103 right now, and those commands range from the basic 'Sit. Stay.' sorts of things to a lot of directional things, like 'Hunt.' and 'Back.' and 'Side.' , which is the opposite of 'Heel.' There's a whole range of commands where the dogs can retrieve things, even pick up objects off a stool or shelf. They're directed to them by what you're looking at. They can tell where yu're looking and go to that object and get it for you. The dogs do, perhaps most critically for our work, a series of commands that are related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the kinds of symptoms that people with PTSD tend to have. The dogs learn to do a command called 'Got my back.' - it's sort of a reverse 'heel' so that if someone is out in public and they're very anxious about being out in public - perhaps they're afraid that they might be ambushed from behind - the dog is looking behind them. and the fact that the dog is remaining calm, tells them that there's really o danger. So, if I'm in line in the supermarket adn tend to really worry about what's back there, the dog staying quietly at my side looking backwards tells me that things are okay. the dogs clear to clear a room. Many combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have a fear to enter a new space, even f they know it's not logically likely, they're afraid that there might be someone there to ambush them. o the dog will enter the room first, the dogs know how to switch on a light, they'll turn the light on, do a full turn, scan the whole room, come back to the door and look at the veteran. Again, the fact that the dog hasn't reacted, that the dog has stayed calm, tells the veteran that everything's fine, that they can go into that room now.

MarySue Hansell
that's wonderful. It must really keep the veterans calm. How about if someone has a severe panic attack? Are some of the commands helpful in that case?

Eric
Yes, the dogs even learn to dial 911- it has to be a special phone, they can't hit the little buttons - but one is able to get a phone from the phone company that has a large button. The veterans that need this function, position the phone where the dog can reach it, so it's not too high off the ground. If either the veteran becomes comatose or if the veteran gives the 'help!' command, the dog knows to go to that phone, knock the receiver off the hook, press the 'help' button and then return to the side of the veteran and wait until help comes.

MarySue Hansell
That's fabulous. what a great program. do you have a favorite story that you can tell us about a puppy and a veteran pairing together?

Eric
In one sense, my favorite story is always the most recent one we've heard. It's always great when we send home a graduating class of veterans with their dogs and we start hearing back from them in the weeks after they go home. 'Oh, you know what? I slept through the night for the last five nights and that hasn't happened in six years.'. I guess a couple of the specific ones: there's a woman veteran that went home with one of our dogs three or four years ago. After she went home, she sent a wonderful letter back to the puppy raisers who raised her dog to let them know what this experience was like. And it was very moving: one, because she told of her ordeal in the previous years. she'd had a very hard time and after being stationed on a few tours of duty in Afghanistan, her marriage fell apart, her health fell apart and she could never sleep or keep her job. She'd just got home with this dog and she could already feel that her life was coming back together. She didn't wake up with cold sweats in the night anymore and she wrote, in a very funny way, about going out to the movies with her dog and even going into a supermarket for a few minutes. These things that most of us take for granted that we can do all the time had become impossible for her. the fact that her dog was giving her her life back was really wonderful to hear. By the way, that same veteran, she's graduating to her next dog. Her first dog is reaching a point where she's old enough that she's going to retire and just be a pet. Ashley is the veteran's name, and she's going to come back and train with us - with a replacement dog. she'll have the original dog as a pet and her new dog as a service dog.

MarySue Hansell
That's great. do the veterans and the prisoners ever get together?

Eric
Yes, for the past - at least three years now, maybe three and a half - we've been able to do what's called 'team-training', which is the training of the veteran with their dog, largely in prison. The veterans come to the New York Metropolitan area, we do it a little bit upstate of the city. They don't live in the prison facility, we stay in a hotel or conference center with the veterans and dogs but everyday, in the course of that 16 day training, a portion of the day is spent in prison with the inmates who raised the dog training the veterans how to most effectively work with that dog. Ray mentioned the program bringing things full-circle, and this aspect certainly does bring it full-circle because the inmates who do the hard work and put in the years' training the dog and have to say goodbye to the dog, get t see the end-result of their work and get to meet the veterans who are going to benefit from the dogs for years to come.

MarySue Hansell
That's perfect. How can we help? How can our listeners help support Puppies behind Barss?

Eric
Well, Puppies Behind Bars is a 501(c)3 non-profit, so we're funded entirely by private funding from individuals and from some foundations. People are welcome to contribute. They can find us online at www.puppiesbehindbars.com and even though we're a non-profit it is dot com, not dot org. So that's one way. We also love it when people spread the word. It helps just for people to know that programs like ours exist. It helps veterans for people to know about PTSD and understand that this is a real problem for a lot of servicemen and women who have come back from overseas. It's always a great help if people know a veteran who they think might benefit from one of our dogs, if they tell them about us and encourage them to apply for a dog.

MarySue Hansell
I was looking at YouTube and there were some beautiful videos there. I would recommend our listeners who are interested to take a look at them because I found them very moving, and to hear and see the people involved. Eric, how do you hope that Puppies Behind Bars is helping make the world a better place for both the prison inmates and the combat veterans?

Eric
We like to think that our dogs make the world a better place for hundreds of people every year. The inmates, as we discussed, get to experience unconditional love, and some of them have never had that before in their life. They get to give something back. They get to do something worthwhile with their life, and again, many of them have never had that experience. The dogs brighten the lives of our volunteers who help socialize them outside of prison. Some of the volunteers can't have a dog of teir own but for one or two days a week they take home one of our dogs, they help the dog be a better socialized service dog and they get to enjoy that love of a puppy. Finally, for our servicemen and women who've sacrificed so much and often lost so much, these dogs can really give them an opportunity to renew their lives and go back out into the world. We've heard from them, "I have my life back. I have my family back.' and we just hope that the dogs can continue to do that for years to come.

Raymond Hansell
Well, this is a prime example of what we refer to in our BetterWorldians as a great BetterWorldian application. It's a great story and I hope our listeners take heart and can get behind this in some of the ways that we discussed. You can learn more about Puppies Behind Bars by going to puppiesbehindbars.com. Eric, thanks again for joining us on BetterWorldians Radio today.

Eric
You're very welcome. It was a real pleasure, Ray and MarySue. Thanks so much for having me.

Raymond Hansell
You're welcome.

MarySue Hansell
You're welcome.

Raymond Hansell
And by the way, if you're enjoying this episode of BetterWorldians Radio, please be sure to subscribe to our show on iTunes and give us a review. We're always listening to your feedback so we want to know what you think. As we end our show each week, we'd like to share our BetterWorldians mission. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everyobody, so that we can all make it a better world. So until next time, everybody, be a BetterWorldian.