People with special needs can often wait years for a service dog.
In addition to the long wait, training them can be costly.
TODAY’S TMJ4 discovered a relatively new program right here in Wisconsin that’s cutting down the costs and wait times and it starts with sending puppies to prison!
Behind the barbed wire fence at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, 33 inmates spend their days with some unusual cell mates.
“It’s something you have to go through yourself to understand what it means to us,” inmate Brian Presberry said.
Presberry was one of the first set of inmates to join a special service dog training program that started in 2012.
“Now that I’ve been in the program for 3 years, it’s the greatest choice I’ve made,” Presberry said.
Two area non-profits specializing in training guide and service dogs bring in puppies as young as 7 or 8 weeks old.
The inmates work with the dogs for 18-24 months and teach them all the basics.
“They start with basic obedience like teaching them how to sit, lie down, stay and come,” Barbara Schultze with Occupaws said.
After that training is complete, dogs being trained specifically to help the blind will work with a mobility instructor on more complicated tasks like learning how to help their handler cross busy streets and intersections.
"The difficulty (with starting a program like this) was figuring out how to make it work in a correctional setting," Warden Judy Smith said.
Smith admits at first, not everyone in the prison was on board with allowing inmates to work with dogs.
Even the instructors were skeptical.
"When I started this program, I would have never told you that I would be in a prison,” Brenda Cirricioni, the area coordinator for Occupaws and Jorney said. “ I never envisioned working with inmates or doing any of this stuff."
As time passed, her opinion of inmates changed.
"I realized how dedicated the inmates were in the program and how much they had to learn and grow,” she said.
The service dog program at the prison in Oshkosh doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny!
In fact, Smith believes it may even save taxpayers money in the long run by giving inmates motivation to succeed after serving their time.
“We want inmates to be productive,” Smith said. “We want them to do something with their time so they learn new skills and make changes in their lives.”
We found several states across the country have similar service dog training programs.
The average nationwide recidivism rate for inmates hovers around 50 percent.
However, in Washington, only five percent of inmates who completed dog training programs during their sentence did not re-offend after getting out.
“Leader Dogs for the Blind,” an organization working with inmates in Michigan reports recidivism rates between 11 and 13 percent for inmates who go through their training program.
“This is one of the most powerful programs I’ve seen,” Smith said. “Everything is positive.”
“I got into the program because I wanted to help people out,” Presberry said. “I wanted to give back to the community because as an inmate, we’ve all taken from the community at one point.”
We asked the Wisconsin Department of Corrections whether they had any recidivism statistics for inmates who have completed the training program in Oshkosh. However, we’re told because the program is relatively new, many of the inmates who have trained dogs are still incarcerated.
Friday at 6 p.m., we’ll introduce you to a veteran suffering from PTSD who just received a service dog trained by these inmates.