It takes a village…and sometimes a prison. – Ania Laver
As a physician assistant student, I was randomly assigned to a federal prison for my psychiatry rotation. I was apprehensive and fearful, as a five-foot tall, 24 year-old woman, to contemplate spending five weeks at an all male federal lock-up. Before this rotation, I could not have fathomed that not only would I be sad to leave, but that the experience would leave a dramatic stamp on my life.
Three weeks into the rotation, I learned there were inmates training future service dogs. NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) “is a non-profit organization that was established in 1976 and is based in Princeton, Massachusetts. [Their] Assistance Dogs become an extension of their handlers and bring freedom, physical autonomy and relief from social isolation to their human partners who are deaf or have a disability.”1 I asked the NEADS liaison if I could observe the inmates in a puppy class and was thrilled when she said yes! At this class inmates received a brand new batch of three month-old puppies. I watched as grown men, some with intimidating stature, melted to the ground as they knelt and spoke in their “puppy voices.” The liaison explained to me that NEADS partners inmates with puppies as handlers to train them as service dogs. These puppies leave the prison every weekend with weekend puppy raisers (WPR) for socialization outside the prison walls.
That day, I was inspired to become a WPR myself and have witnessed the healing these animals are capable of. Every weekend I pick up my puppy for 48 hours of walks, field trips, and socialization. During field trips to stores or the park these pups bring a smile to the faces of everyone we meet. I’ve observed first-hand the ability these puppies have to brighten, not only my day, but also the days of total strangers!
As puppies, they provide “free time” and stress relief while teaching the values of patience and discipline to inmates. The puppies serve as companions and sources of constant adventure during weekends with their WPRs. As service dogs they are calming, helpful, and hardworking best friends to their owners. NEADS dogs give their companions every-day assistance and function as a social connection between their humans and the world around them.
NEADS dogs are true healers. As a PA I am inspired to take the nod from these amazing pups. I continue to learn from these pups and strive to emulate their qualities of patience, empathy, and dedication in the practice of medicine.