Behind Prison Walls, North Carolina Inmates Are Training Service Dogs—Or Are the Dogs Training Them? | News Feature | Indy Week
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Behind Prison Walls, North Carolina Inmates Are Training Service Dogs—Or Are the Dogs Training Them? 

click to enlarge A service dog at Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Paws

Photo by Ben McKeown

A service dog at Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Paws

With graying hair and a bushy moustache that spreads across his upper lip, Grady Meredith speaks with an air of confidence that hints at years of life experience. He stands at about five feet six and has a muscular stature that looms over Lucy, the Labrador mix that sits at his feet. He walks the two-year-old service dog through a series of training techniques in the middle of a bare, bunker-like room made of sheets of metal and concrete floors. One at a time, he drops an assortment of items: a pack of almonds, a toothbrush, keys, all of which Lucy eagerly bends down to pick up and returns gently to Meredith's open palm.

Next, he places a bright red Staples "Easy" button on one of the metal walls. With one word—"nose"—he commands Lucy to push the button. Tail wagging, Lucy trots over and puts her nose to the plastic. "That was easy," chirps the device. Watching Lucy effortlessly complete each task feels like witnessing a circus act; the tricks, which seem simple enough, surprise and fascinate.

But while the presence of more than a dozen dogs lightens the bleak room's atmosphere, the fact that this is all taking place inside a medium-security prison is hard to ignore.

At forty-six years old, Meredith has been locked up for more than At forty-six years old, Meredith has been locked up for more than

At forty-six years old, Meredith has been locked up for more than half his life. He's currently serving a life sentence at Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn, a small town about thirty miles east of Raleigh. The prison holds more than four hundred prisoners who have been convicted of an array of offenses, from drug possession to murder. Meredith was convicted of second-degree murder. He grew up in a Gaston County mill village, a ghost of the once-booming textile industry. His best childhood memories are of the time he spent working with his uncles teaching dogs retrieval work.

"We trained bird dogs like retrievers and black labs and competed them in retrieval competitions," Meredith says. "Before I came to prison, I always had a dog."

Meredith now works with Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Paws, a Carrboro nonprofit that trains puppies to become service dogs for those who are differently abled. The group partnered with the prison in late 2014 in a program called At Both Ends of the Leash, which aims to increase the number of service dogs in the Triangle; it now employs eighteen prisoners as dog trainers.

"Training service dogs is labor intensive, and it's hard to find people who can commit to doing it for a long period of time," says Deb Cunningham, cofounder and director of EENP. "It takes thousands of hours to train dogs, and volunteers don't have as much time."

EENP surely benefits from the work of these prisoners, but the inmates themselves also find the work rewarding. It's a break from the drudgery and tedium of life behind bars, as well as a source of much-needed stimulation. The program also offers trainees valuable experience that may be beneficial outside the prison walls. Cunningham says the dogs teach the prisoners patience, compassion, and empathy.

The use of prisoners as dog trainers dates back the eighties, when Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun, started a dog-training program in a Washington state prison—the first of its kind. Since then, many programs, including At Both Ends of the Leash, or ABEL, have sprung up around the country.

Though these programs have proven popular, there hasn't been a lot of hard research into their efficacy; the studies that do exist suggest that dog-training partnerships have a positive effect on prisoners.

A 2007 study published in the Federal Probation journal, for instance, showed a decrease in the rates of depression and aggression among inmates in Indiana. According to the study, these changes could be attributed to the prisoners' assuming increased responsibility in caring for the dogs and the resulting trust that prison staff developed toward the inmates. Studies have also shown that programs like the one at Franklin can help reduce recidivism rates. A 2013 study of a Philadelphia prison showed that while 41 percent of all prisoners were rearrested within a year of release, only 14 percent of prisoners involved in canine programs were.

"You can see a difference in the guys when you put a leash in their hands," Meredith says. "They have responsibility, and it teaches them self-awareness. At some point, it starts to psychologically make a difference."

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