Some leader dogs begin their training in prisons

By Mike Taylor • Last Updated 11:30 am on Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Leader Dog for the Blind representative Tammy Bartz explains to the Vestaburg Lions Club how the Rochester program works. Bartz spoke Monday evening at the club’s regular meeting. — Mike Taylor/Daily News

VESTABURG — A good dog can change a life. A great dog can change the lives of many.

The business of the Leader Dogs for the Blind program is to create good dogs and place them where they will do the most good.

Founded by three Lions Club members in 1939, the organization has bred, trained and put to work generations of Labradors, golden retrievers, German shepherds and mixed breeds for 75 years. The working dogs have given freedom and mobility to thousands of visually impaired persons since the organization’s start.

But in recent years, that benevolence has spread beyond the blind and into one of the least likely locations: prisons.

Bartz shows off Harper, a working dog she has raised from a puppy. At just under 1 year old, Harper will soon be returning to the Rochester Leader Dog facility, where he will be trained to provide “eyes” for a visually impaired owner. — Daily News/Mike Taylor

According to Tammy Bartz, a Rochester Hills-based puppy trainer, for the past several years many dogs used in the Leader Dog program have been trained by prisoners in Ohio and Michigan. The dogs do almost as much good there, Bartz said, as they do once they’re delivered to their intended owners.

Bartz shared information about the program at Monday evening’s meeting of the Vestaburg Lions Club. She noted that puppies trained by prisoners tend to have far higher success rates as Leader Dogs than do dogs trained in private residences.

In addition, statistics show prisoners involved in the program have far lower rates of recidivism. Training the dogs, current thinking goes, gives the prisoners a chance to contribute something positive to society and stay in touch with their own humanity in an otherwise joyless environment.

“There was one fellow in prison for 22 years,” Bartz said. “He volunteered for the program and when he picked up that puppy, this big, tough prisoner smiled and said, ‘That’s the first dog I’ve touched in years.’ Now he’s one of our best trainers.

“Another prisoner told me how he used to get in a lot of fights, but has learned patience from working with the puppies. He even took his dog with him to his parole hearing. He’s getting out in September. These prisoners really want their dogs to succeed.”

The prisoner training program got its start in Ohio, but has recently made its way to Michigan, with Jackson being the latest prison to get on board.

Nationwide, prisons see about a 50 percent recidivism rate in the prison population. The rate for repeat offenders involved in the leader dog program is closer to 15 percent, Bartz said.

Dogs for the program are generally bred from proven Leader Dogs. The puppies are then raised and trained for about one year by either prisoners or volunteers. After that year, the dogs are returned to the program headquarters in Rochester where they learn the finer skills involved in providing “eyes” to the blind.

About 80 percent of dogs used in the program are Labs, due to the breed’s gentle nature and anxiousness to please. Golden retrievers, German shepherds and mixed breeds also are used. The training regimen, once the dogs about a year old, lasts for four to six months.

Finally, each dog is paired with a visually impaired owner, who travels to Rochester for a weeks-long training period. There, they learn how to handle their personally matched canine companion.

Since the program’s start, nearly 14,000 dogs have been placed with owners from across the globe.

Even with an enormous network of volunteers, all this costs a great deal of money. That funding comes from Lions Clubs
worldwide and other

According to Vestaburg Lions Club President James Hodges, the club is one of the program’s main sponsors.

“It was the Lions Club that started the training program in Rochester,” Hodges explained. “It takes about $40,000 to train just one dog completely.”

As long as the program continues to change lives, Hodges added — the lives of trainers, prisoners and, of course, the visually impaired — that’s money well spent.

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