Matt and Melanie Pedersen are no strangers to America’s prison system. Matt is a sergeant with the police department in Arlington, Texas; his job sometimes ends with people going to jail. Melanie is a social worker serving as a commander in the United States Public Health Service for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; she works in a women’s correctional institution. Every day, they both see people at their worst, but through their involvement in the Canine Companions for Independence Prison Puppy Raising program, they also get to see the very best of people (and dogs) helping people.
With encouragement from a community member already involved with service dog work, Melanie created a service dog puppy-raising program at the facility where she works in 2007. In 2009, they began their current partnership with Canine Companions for Independence. Future service dogs are bred by Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, California, and puppies are flown to the Dallas/Fort Worth area at eight weeks old to begin their training at a women’s minimum-security facility. Women inmates who are approved to work with the program can have a variety of responsibilities, but each of the six puppies in a “class” has a primary caregiver who lives with the dog, as well as a backup caregiver and several volunteers.
The program gives responsibility and purpose to the inmates, things that may have been lacking in some of their lives before this opportunity arose. And it seems to make a huge difference. According to Melanie, there has been a zero percent — yes, zero percent — recidivism rate amongst their puppy-raising inmates. A testament to the program, to be sure, but also to the very idea of service animals. Clearly, it is not just the eventual owners who benefit.
As Melanie put it, “For many, a light is turned on in them, showing this entire other world of volunteerism and giving to others. They are proud of what they do with their time and appreciate the opportunity.”
While the inmates are chiefly responsible for the care and socialization of the puppies, the program also utilizes weekend puppy raisers outside of the system to be sure the puppies are exposed to a variety of different people and situations in their formative years. After working the program from the inside since 2007, Melanie (and Matt) became weekend puppy raisers for the program in 2009. Initially, they just stepped in to help when another staff member was unable to continue with her puppy, but after the first experience, they were hooked. They have now helped raise four puppies for Canine Companions.
Matt and Melanie have always been “dog people.” So much so, that as a kid, Matt wanted to be a K9 handler. Between the small number of openings for those types of positions in his department and the timing of other career milestones, that opportunity never arose. So Matt was understandably pleased when they were able to participate in this program.
Says Matt, “As a first responder, we are always dealing with people on the front end of the criminal justice process and rarely learn what happens to them if they end up incarcerated. It is heartwarming to know that programs exist at the local and federal level that not only benefit nonprofit organizations and the recipients who receive service dogs, but the inmates who are involved in these programs.”
I suppose now would be a good time to disclose that Matt is my cousin. And I regularly stalk their puppies on social media. I have seen adorable photos of all of their pups. Pups at the hardware store, pups at the lake, pups not eating the sushi display at the grocery store — you name it. A large part of their job is to take the pups wherever they go and to maximize exposure to the different people and scenarios they may meet later in life.
But I know there is more to it than fun outings and adorable photos. For one, they need to not undo all the hard work their weekday raisers have done. Matt and Melanie are responsible for continuing the education and socialization and for teaching the puppies how to learn, so that they will be ready for their professional training at the end of the 18-month puppy raising period. And that’s the other thing. The end of the puppy-raising period comes. Every time. Ready or not.
When that happens, Matt and Melanie turn the puppies — now dogs — over to Canine Companions for Independence. The dogs then go through an extensive medical workup, at the end of which, if they pass, they begin their professional training. Throughout training, Matt and Melanie receive periodic updates in the form of monthly report cards. Not all dogs go on to be matched with recipients, but if their dogs get pre-matched, they get notified, and if the dogs continue and graduate, Matt and Melanie are invited to the graduation ceremony, where they get to reconnect with their puppy and meet the recipient. When it’s their pup’s turn, they walk their dog across a stage and hand the leash to the new owner.
Says Melanie, “It’s the proudest moment, and you understand the importance of your role as a puppy raiser in this process. When people ask “How can you give the dog up?” This is why. You had a job to do as a puppy raiser and now the pup has a job to do help someone who needs it.”
I asked both Matt and Melanie what they considered their favorite and least favorite things about puppy raising. For Melanie, it was two things. No. 1? “Good old fashioned puppy time — pure joy and love.” The other was “seeing the pup we helped raise fulfill the greater purpose as a service dog.”
Matt’s favorite thing? Aside from the puppy bonding, he says, “Talking to people in the community and getting the word out about Canine Companions when we are on puppy outings and exposure training. The dogs (and the raisers) become ambassadors for the program, so it is nice to get a chance to talk up Canine Companions and the great work they do around the country and in our South Central Region.”
As for least favorite? It’s picking up poop.
Matt and Melanie have weekend-raised four dogs for Canine Companions. One of them, Sedona, was chosen to assist quadriplegic college student Zack Collie and one was chosen for the Canine Companions breeding program. Of the other two, one is still in advanced training and one ended up being placed as a pet. (Melanie referred to it as a “career change.”)
The prison where Melanie runs the program is now raising puppies Nos. 43 to 48 since the program was established. (There have been 24 to 29 puppies for Canine Companions total, with the others with a previous partner organization.) They have learned a lot, and so I asked them what advice they would give to anyone considering doing this amazing work. Both stressed the importance of understanding the commitment. Both in terms of time and in following the rules of the program.
Matt points out that as weekend raisers, they are in a unique position, but that full-time raising takes full-time commitment. He says other puppy raisers are a great resource for advice and perspective. Melanie added that the organization has staff who are there to help you be the best puppy raiser you can be.
She summed it up this way: “Puppy raising is an amazing gift that you can give to someone who needs that pup. But only take on this calling if you know you can follow the rules and understand that this pup has a mission that is greater than an individual’s need for a pet dog. If someone wants another pet, then get another pet. If someone wants to make a difference in another’s life through a dog, then be a puppy raiser.”
Matt and Melanie inspire me. They and the dogs they are helping to raise are making a difference.
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About the author: Lisa Seger (who goes by Blue Heron Farm on most social media platforms) is a former office drone turned dairy farmer and cheesemaker. She found that cubicle jobs just didn’t allow for enough quality animal time and so made animals her work instead. Like all dairy farmers, she has virtually NO free time, but what little she gets is generally spent in pursuit of rescuing, fostering, and placing homeless dogs. Or being a smart-alec on the interwebs. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.