Helping those serving time train those serving others

Put “prison” in the same sentence with “dog” and for most people, images arise of snarling guard dogs making sure prisoners remain locked up. But for scores of people with disabilities an unusual program that uses Indiana prisoners to train Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Labradoodles and other breeds to serve as assistance dogs can mean a better way of life.

Dog trainee

One of the people deeply involved in the Indiana Canine Assistant & Adolescent Network (ICAAN) is Eileen Udry, a faculty member in the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management at IUPUI. ICAAN, founded in 2001 by Sally Irvin, was launched at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility with two incarcerated adolescents. With each success story, the program has grown and now includes three central Indiana locations.

"What is so remarkable about the program is that it has benefits in two very significant ways," says Udry, who helps develop the training methods used by the prisoners. "A well-trained dog can be such a tremendous benefit to a person who otherwise would have a much harder time getting around and doing things the rest of us take for granted.

"But it also offers help-and hope-to the men and women who are in prison, who find something worthwhile to do with their time," she adds. "And they learn a marketable skill while giving others hope, too."

IUPUI at work

For Udry, ICAAN is a good example of IUPUI in action: it blends education (training the inmates to train the dogs) with public service (assisting Hoosiers who need service dogs) and public policy (giving inmates an opportunity to contribute to society and-perhaps-to their own futures).

The multiple missions attracted Udry, who has training in sports psychology.

"I got into the program because of the opportunity to work with dogs, which I've always enjoyed," she says. "But the longer I was involved, the more I realized there was a bigger picture," she says. "There are some stunning lessons to be learned."

Among those lessons? That the dogs have an impact in their prison training grounds. Studies show that offender-trainers improve their positive communication skills and increase their empathy, and have fewer instances of depression. And Udry and ICAAN are intrigued by correctional staff reports of decreases in overall offender misbehavior- not just among the handlers-in the dorms in which the dogs live during training.

"Many of the other inmates seem to be drawn to the dogs," Udry says. "They seem to have a calming effect in the dorms."

The IUPUI researcher has spent the past four-plus years gathering such information as part of her work with Indiana prisons involved with the ICAAN program.

Fits personal interests

Udry says her work with ICAAN "is a nice synthesis of my professional work and my personal interests," particularly her work with the psychology of high-performance athletes in training.

"In many respects, the dogs we train through ICAAN are themselves high-performance athletes," she says. "They go through rigorous training and have to learn how to deal with a wide range of situations, just like athletes do."

She's found lots of commonalities, for instance, between those who train service dogs and those who coach high-level athletes.

"Both are held to really high standards," she notes. "Athletes have to be able to compete against top-flight competition regardless of circumstances, while assistance dogs have to behave in ways that aren't always natural to animals. They can't eat food off the floor, for example, and they can't be distracted by the world around them like other pets can be."

An NFL coach, for example, "succeeds by making a Super Bowl atmosphere feel familiar to his players during preparation," Udry says. "For assistance dogs, our biggest challenge is making the real world as familiar as possible, so the dogs can do their jobs well." The payoff is worth it.

"What's best about this work is the feeling you get when you see a dog working with its new partner," says Udry. "Usually, the dogs make such a major change in the people's lives that you can see it right away." The physical assistance is vital. It might be as simple as retrieving an item that the person has dropped or has difficulty picking up. Or it might be as major as providing a solid base for someone with Parkinson's disease; such people have problems with balance, and often need the dog to steady them. In extreme cases, the dogs are taught to remain still, allowing the person to use the solid base to pull himself or herself off the floor.

But the psychological impact can be just as important. "There is such a connection that grows between the human being and the dog when things go right," Udry says. "We're only now beginning to be able to assess the emotional benefits to the people who now have the animal."

Different type of teaching

Although Udry is teaching in both facets of her professional life- whether it's students in her IUPUI classrooms or offenders in one of Indiana's prisons-the "feel of things is very different to me," she says. "At IUPUI, I'm working with students trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, what career paths they want to choose," she says. "With ICAAN, though, it's more about giving people a second chance. For the recipients, it's a chance to lead a richer, more productive life. For the offender-trainers, it's an opportunity to remake themselves and their lives."

That makes ICAAN different from other prison-based training programs across the U.S., Udry believes.

"ICAAN's mission is first to train assistance dogs," the sports psychologist explains. "But the program also is designed to help the personal and psychological growth of the offenders who do the training. Both goals are vital if the program is to work."

To learn more about the ICAAN program, visit the organization's Web site at www.icaan.net.