A Beneficial Partnership for Everyone Involved: An Interview with Alyson Cox of NEADS
Like most service and therapy dog organizations, National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) puts an emphasis on their dogs’ thorough training and ability to perform well after being placed with a handler. However, unlike most other similar organizations, the NEADS program utilizes a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week training program by working with prison inmates as trainers. According to NEADS’ Manager of Communications, Alyson Cox, the program prides themselves on the impact that their dogs make in the lives of many different people.
Founded in 1976, NEADS is a nonprofit organization in Princeton, Massachusetts. NEADS provides service dogs for people who are deaf or have hearing loss, children and adults with a physical disability, children on the autism spectrum, veterans, and for use in classrooms, therapy settings, ministries, and courthouse facilities. Over its 40 years of operation, NEADS has trained over 1600 dogs and currently has 420 teams working together. The organization relies on about 35 staff members and many volunteers to keep it operating. Additionally, NEADS works with eight prisons in Massachusetts and one prison in Rhode Island for their Prison PUP Partnership training program.
Prison PUP Partnership
NEADS originally began the Prison PUP Partnership in 1998 as a trial. After seeing the success of the partnership, the organization decided to permanently use the program as a training strategy.
The dogs for the program arrive at the NEADS campus when they are about eight weeks old. When they are 10 to 12 weeks old, they are sent to one of the nine prison facilities to begin training with an inmate. The larger prisons can have about 20 dogs and the smaller prisons can have five to six dogs in training at once. Each dog is matched with one inmate who serves as the primary handler and another inmate who serves as the backup handler. The inmates work to train the dogs under the leadership of a NEADS trainer who visits the prison facility.
On the weekdays, the dog spends all day and night with his or her handler. The dog lives in the inmate’s cell, which is strategically located near a yard, and joins the inmate for training sessions and other activities throughout the day. On the weekends, the dog is placed with a volunteer weekend puppy raiser who helps train it in an outside setting and expose it to situations that are not present in a prison. The training program takes 14 to 15 months to be completed. At the end of the program, the dog is placed with a NEADS client who has the opportunity to meet the inmate handler, if interested.
NEADS partners with minimum and medium security prisons to find inmates to work as trainers through the Prison PUP Partnership. The inmates are specially selected for the partnership based on their behavior and the reason that they are in prison. The individuals who are a part of the program view their role as a privilege and know that they can lose this rewarding job if they do not maintain a high level of behavior.
The goal of the Prison PUP Partnership program is to provide an opportunity for inmates to give back and positively impact the lives of others. It helps inmates to feel like they are able to do something good in the world and have a purpose. Additionally, the involvement of inmates who do not have other responsibilities such as a job, a family, or other obligations to attend to throughout the day is quite unique and maximizes training time.
“The inmates are the best trainers out there because they are the only group of people who can devote 24 hours, 7 days a week to training,” said Cox.
Since the dogs are with their inmate handlers around the clock, they are able to really learn to bond with humans during the training process. This simulates the situation that they will be in once working as a service dog.
Working with the Prison PUP Partnership is a very coveted job in the prisons and often leads inmates to improve their behavior so that they can either join or stay involved with the program. The program keeps inmates motivated and makes them want to work hard to help their dog do well. The inmates feel a sense of pride when they see progress with their dog and know that it will soon positively impact someone else’s life.
“When an inmate handler has a chance to meet the dog’s new handler who they will be serving, this is often a turning point for the inmate,” said Cox.
Several former inmates have attended their dog’s graduation and feel a sense of pride knowing that they are the reason the animal succeeded. Seeing the dog actually working as a service animal with its permanent handler helps inmates feel that they can be a productive member of society and help others have a better life.
The Prison PUP Partnership has enabled NEADS to best serve their clients, communities, and dogs.
“The partnership is so beneficial to everyone involved: inmates, volunteers, staff, clients, and dogs,” said Cox.
Because of the Prison PUP Partnership’s astound impact, NEADS plans to keep the program in place for many years to come.
“There is no question that the benefits of dogs are enormous,” said Cox.
For more information about NEADS and Prison PUP Partnership, visit their website.