Anyhow, I was eating a late lunch last Thursday when Oprah came on. The theme of the episode was amazing animals and our relationships with them, which on the surface doesn't seem that emotional. But just five minutes in, I was already tearing up! Actress Glenn Close was on the show to tell Oprah and viewers about this amazing and groundbreaking program called Puppies Behind Bars. I had never heard of the program before but I am now I firm supporter of it.
Puppies Behind Bars is a program in which incarcerated felons train puppies to become service dogs for the disabled, including wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of us are familiar with service dogs that are used to assist the blind or others with a physical impairment. But I think what was so remarkable to me was to see that these dogs are also being used to help soldiers with what Glenn Close called an "invisible wound" and "the signature injury" of Iraq and Afghanistan: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
During the show, Glenn Close took viewers inside the Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York. There, inmates—who have been convicted of violent crimes including abuse, robbery and murder—are given 8-week-old puppies and taught to train them. The puppies and the prisoners are together 24/7; the dogs even live in crates in the inmates' cells.
What touched my heart was seeing how these adorable puppies are transforming lives. How these dogs are changing the lives of both convicted felons and war heroes. As any dog owner knows, dogs don't discriminate. Their love is for everyone.
Jesse, a 23-year-old inmate convicted of first-degree manslaughter, is training his third dog, Joy. He said his relationship with her and his other dogs has enabled him to love again.
"It had been so dormant in me for so long because of the cold place that I'm in that I didn't know that I could love again," Jesse said. "We all get to see how greatly these dogs affect the lives of the people they touch. And it's those same lives that we have touched also through these dogs."
For inmates like Edwardo Garcia, 33, the program is a second chance to do something good and worthwhile with their lives.
"This is our way of repaying a society that we took so much from," said Garcia, who is serving time for first-degree murder.
The part of the show that really got me though was when an inmate named Roberto Rodriguez was able to reunite with his puppy, Frankie, and meet the man whose life has been changed for the better with that yellow lab by his side.
Though he is convicted of second-degree murder, Roberto, 33, does not appear to be a hardened criminal when interacting with his dog, Frankie. He is loving and affectionate and even a bit mushy, and he tells the Oprah cameras that it was difficult to say goodbye to Frankie. The pup went to Army Sgt. Allen Hill, who was hit by a roadside bomb just two months before completing his second tour of duty in Iraq. Hill suffers from traumatic brain injury and severe combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. But with the simple command of "kisses," Frankie can snap Hill out of his violent, paralyzing flashbacks with just a few loving licks on his face. (To read more about Hill, check out this Q&A posted on Glenn Close's blog.)
"Frankie has been there for me, she has been my rock," the sergeant said."I'm happy that she made a difference in your life," Roberto told Hill.
Hill's wife, Gina, said Frankie has started to bring her husband back to his old, fun-loving self.
"Frankie has brought my sons their daddy home," Gina told Oprah. "She has lit the light back in him that had been so dark for the last year and a half."
Amazing, isn't it? I'm sure you can see now why I was a blubbering mess after watching the show. So tell me, what do you think of the Puppies Behind Bars program? Had you heard of it before? And, here's a tough question: do you think a dog's love can really change a murderer into a better person?