My Journey: Training Service Dogs in Prison

A story by Anonymous (Maine State Prison)

I am a service dog trainer. This means I take a two-month-old Yellow Lab puppy and train it daily for 17 months. Within these 17 months, I will teach this dog to do everything from sitting to the most complex commands like opening a refrigerator. I never planned on doing this type of training with dogs, but my mother bred and trained golden retrievers for most of my childhood. I saw her training her dogs and remember watching her use clickers to get the dogs to do whatever the behavior was. In a way, I was learning how to train dogs at an early age. I never imagined the level I would eventually be at now. I have mastered the “clicker training” method.

Training dogs is more than just a job to me. This is because I’m a prisoner at the Maine State Prison (MSP). I have been at MSP for decades. While I do get paid to train dogs, I told the MSP administration that I'm willing to do it for free. The dog is the reward to me. I use the dog for my own emotional support. Sometimes I'm broken and don't want to move. I've put on weight from depression but the dog is everything to me. I don't need the money. I've gone years with nothing. The dogs I train are my world.

I spent the first 10 years of my prison life wasting away and doing nothing. I was always filled with the thought of how evil I was and not meant for this world. I wanted to end my life so many times. I attempted it more than a few times. I still struggle with wanting this too-long nightmare to end. I have done so many programs at MSP. I am now in college and plan on getting my Masters in Computer Science. I hope this will allow me to have a good job once I am released.

Working with dogs was something I personally wanted since I began my prison sentence. I wrote to the warden, commissioner, and governor explaining the benefits of prisoners training dogs. Fifteen years later, someone finally decided to start the program, and now I’m in this amazing position. The America’s VetDogs program came to MSP around 2017. Since then, I have trained or helped train 4 different dogs that have ended up with wounded veterans. MSP can have up to ten dogs at a time. I would guess that over fifty dogs have gone through this program.

When I first moved to the Veteran’s pod, I first started working with a little black Lab puppy named Lorrain. I had to learn how to train her and I was very intimidated. However, the guy teaching me to train the dog told me: “this is going to be hard and very time-consuming, but you’ll learn the proper way.” I followed him around in circles watching every move and listened to the tone in his voice. I picked up the leash and thought I knew what to do. But I was very wrong. I had to calm myself, let my ego go and stop thinking I was being talked down to, so I let my walls down and opened myself up to learning this training. I had to read many books, and I noticed I would get very frustrated being in prison having another prisoner tell me this is wrong, but I loved what I was doing so I never got an attitude. I woke up every day knowing I was going to learn something today. I wrote a journal daily and I would read it the next morning to see where I struggled the day before. I would try to improve daily, and I left myself motivational sticky notes all over the room to give myself the motivation I needed. I never missed a day of doing this. I feel that if I didn’t do this, I would get down on myself and lose the motivation so I stayed at it. When Lorrain would do something right, I would “click” the clicker which takes a snapshot to a dog’s brain letting it know it did something right. In turn, when I would click it, I would also learn something. A hundred thousand clicks later, I’ve mastered it. My dog Lorrain graduated as a full-service dog and I was her secondary trainer.

Now that I am a primary handler, I am asked to help train others. I let others know that the process is repetition and how to do it right every time. I’ve advised them to shadow me and do exactly what I do. I don’t know it all, but what I do know is it takes a team to train a dog to be a full-service dog. As a primary dog handler, I would never do anything to jeopardize my situation. Once these dogs are finished training, they end up with the men and women that have fought for this country and have been wounded doing so. I feel such self-worth and happiness doing this for people who need it. I just received the first puppy that is mine from start to finish. His name is Rocky. He is a Yellow Lab that came to me at twenty-eight pounds. He is now many more pounds of pure love. This has changed me so much; it has filled my heart with love and compassion. I wish I could go back and change the past, but I can’t. All I can do is be a good man and show who I really am to the world.