Story by Lance Cpl. Rebecca Eller
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. — They both have shiny blonde hair, big brown eyes and slender legs. Poet and Roghan are residents of the Naval Consolidated Brig aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. However, they are not prisoners, but puppies.
Select prisoners at the Brig receive an opportunity to raise puppies for Canine Companions for Independence, which provides service dogs for wounded combat veterans.
“This is a win-win situation,” said Cath Phillips, a dog trainer with CCI and a Temecula, Calif., native. “We have people here who have obviously done wrong; they want to turn their lives around, and they’re doing it by loving the puppies for 18 months and then sending the puppy on its way to do something for somebody else.”
The brig’s staff and clinical services screen prisoners prior to entry in the program, followed by interviews with CCI officials.
“I wanted to come into the program initially because I thought it would be pretty fantastic just to have a dog around,” said a prisoner. “What I found out after doing it for a while is I was able to give back and help someone.”
The program was introduced to Miramar in 2005 and is beneficial for not only wounded veterans, but the dog handler as well. The dog handlers selected at the prison learn patience and anger management.
“I had anger issues when I first came here, but the dogs have helped me,” said a second prisoner. “They’re a nice break, and it feels good doing something selfless.”
The dog handlers spend three days devoted to the puppy and then rotate with another handler for two days off. The handlers give up several liberties to train the puppies, but they all agree it is worth the lost free-time.
“Even though we give up free time, the hardest thing is giving the dog up when it’s time to let them go,” said a prisoner.
In the 18 months the handlers have the puppies, they train them how to perform needed tasks and to avoid distractions. These future service dogs must be able to assist the disabled with various activities such as escorting the blind, retrieving items not accessible by the owner and helping perform household chores.
“We’re not just doing time,” said a prisoner. “We’re progressing, we’re making things happen.”
Puppies trained at the brig have a successful completion rate of about 60 percent. However, canines trained outside of prison only have a 35 percent average success rate, according to the Canine Companions for Independence newsletter.
“Here [the prisoners’] focus is on the program, and it shows in the dogs,” said Phillips.
With the structured life the prisoners live in, they are able to devote more time to the puppies than someone outside of the military raising canine companions, added Phillips.
Before the puppies leave to help the disabled, the puppies are already helping the prisoners. They provide a purpose for the prisoners to better themselves.
“You’re bringing something positive out of the most negative experience of your life,” said a prisoner. “You know that you’re making something good happen.”