Paws with Purpose celebrates 15 years of inmates training service dogs

Updated: Oct. 24, 2019 at 12:06 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - For more than 15 years, inmates at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women have been training dogs while serving time thanks to a partnership with an organization called Paws with Purpose.

Paws with Purpose was founded in 2003 to provide skilled assistance dogs to people in the Louisville community. In May 2004, incarcerated women started working to raise the dogs. The dogs are trained for 18 months to two years.

“It’s great for (the dogs),” Paws with Purpose Development Director Ellen Baldwin said. “They’re in loving hands the whole time and then they go out in the public world and they are happy to come back (to the prison). So it’s really good for everybody and there’s a lot of love that goes around, clearly.”

Inmates take care of the dogs Monday through Friday, keeping them in their living spaces and taking them to lunch and recreation time. The dogs are sent to other handlers over the weekend for additional training outside of the prison walls. The inmate handlers meet the recipients before the dog graduates, which allows the inmates to learn what to specifically teach the dog.

“It’s also a good opportunity for the handlers, too, to get a really good idea of what that dog needs to be doing once they’re placed, so it’s a great partnership all around,” Elaine Weisberg, a Paws with Purpose board member, said.

On Wednesday night, KCIW and Paws with Purpose met with inmates, dog recipients and other volunteers to celebrate their 15-year partnership.

“(The dogs are) with us side by side,” Jennifer Hatcher, an inmate at KCIW, said. “Anything we can do to take them to teach them.”

Hatcher has served nine years in prison, and has worked with Paws with Purpose for almost eight.

“It’s really, really rewarding,” Hatcher said with tears in her eyes. “I came here like everybody else, just broken. And working with the dogs has taught me a lot about myself: Patience, kindness, love. It’s kind of hard in here. You know, we live next to each other. We eat and sleep and work together, and different from out there, where you get to go home at the end of the day.”

Hatcher said she believes she’s worked with 10 dogs so far, three of which were placed with someone who needed an assistance dog.

“It’s completely changed my life,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got to get these dogs ready for things out there that we don’t get to see. I’ve been here. I haven’t seen the progression of everything out there.”

Hatcher said the hardest part is seeing a dog leave to help someone else.

“Of course we get very attached, and that’s the one thing you hear all the time: How do you let them go, how do you let them go?” Hatcher said. “And yes it’s very hard.”

Anne Reardon has been in prison for about five and a half years. She’s spent four working with Paws with a Purpose.

“This program is the best thing for people who are in here,” Reardon said. “It really is. It gives you a chance to do something wonderful for someone else out there because everything we do with these dogs, everything we teach them, as simple as no bite or no chewing on things ... it gives us so much pleasure and gratification to know that we were a part of that to help someone out there have a much better life, an easier life.”

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