Prison Drug Treatment Program Pairs Inmates with "Hero Pups"

By Paul Gaita 01/21/19

Advocates say dog training provides inmates with a variety of emotional skills that can be utilized while undergoing drug treatment. 

person playing with a hero pup

A quartet of inmates in a New Hampshire county jail is helping to raise and train puppies that will eventually become service dogs for veterans and first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.

The Merrimack County Department of Corrections has partnered with Hero Pups, a New Hampshire-based non-profit, to make the care and training of dogs part of the inmates' drug treatment program; some 300 prisons across the country currently have some form of dog training for inmates, which has shown promise in reducing anxiety and depression among participants.

According to Merrimack County Department of Corrections superintendents, the dogs have boosted morale for inmates and prison staff alike.

The program at Merrimack County involves four minimum security inmates – two male and two female – who will raise the 10-week-old puppies for two months before they move on to permanent companionship with veterans or first responders.

Though the Hero Pups program is the first of its kind in the Granite State, similar dog- and animal-training programs have been implemented in neighboring states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where inmates work with service dogs.

Program advocates have stated that dog training provides inmates with a variety of emotional skills, including compassion and self-sufficiency, that can be utilized while undergoing drug treatment. "It's teaching them some responsibility. It's teaching them some structure," said Merrimack County Department of Corrections Superintendent Ross Cunningham.

Laura Barker, board president of Hero Pups, expressed hope that the benefits of the dog training program will spread beyond the inmates to those who will eventually benefit from their companionship. "These dogs go on to help people," she said. "Being able to contribute something positive to the inmate participants just adds another layer of awesomeness."

The inmates participating in the Merrimack County program have been effusive about the impact of the dogs on their lives.

"It feels like a second chance," said Caitlin Hyland, who is serving time for a drug conviction, about the chocolate Labrador mix puppy under her care. "I am learning so much about finding the balance. You have to love yourself before you can appreciate the love something else is giving you."

According to corrections staff, the puppies' presence has buoyed the mood of all 30 inmates in the jail, who are allowed to interact with them during the day, and staff alike. "When I look on security cameras, I see puppies running around," said Assistant Merrimack County Department of Corrections Superintendent Kara Wyman. "That lifts the staff."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.