CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – Annette Polk of the Directorate of Public Works at Letterkenny Army Depot has a passion for dogs and Soldier support. When she found out she could volunteer to help service dogs in training for veterans, she was eager to get involved.
The prison puppy program was created through America’s VetDogs, which was founded in 2003. In the prison puppy program, inmates in correctional institutions from Maine to Florida are granted the unique opportunity to raise and train puppies who will one day work as service dogs for wounded veterans.
Once an inmate is screened and established as a “puppy handler,” the puppies live in an inmate’s cell and learn the fundamentals of service dog training, as well as housebreaking, crate training and other basic skills. The pups also begin to learn service dog tasks that include retrieving dropped items, opening doors and providing balance on stairs. During the week, the pups spend most of their days attending classes and programs outside of the cell.
In September 2017 Polk began her volunteering as a weekend puppy raiser. She met her service pup in training, a 12-week-old black Lab named Balto. Every weekend Polk would pick Balto up from the institution for a sort of “furlough.” She and her daughter, Jenna, would teach him house manners and accustom him to a life that would include car rides, traffic noises, and public outings to store, restaurants and church. He also learned to be around other pets and animals during this time, like their Maltese puppy, Willow.
Balto and Polk clicked immediately, and she said he was instantly part of the family. For about a year, Balto would spend weekends and holidays with Polk.
“I did get attached to him, so it was hard to say goodbye,” Polk said. “But when you see what good he’s going to be doing, it makes it all worth it.”
In August, Balto returned to the VetDogs training center where he would spend three months training with professionals in preparation for his new owner, a disabled veteran who required a dog that could perform service dog tasks and guide support. Balto met his new owner at the end of November, and during the intense two-week training period, the veteran learned the requirements and commands he would need with his new aide.
In early December, Polk and her daughter traveled to Long Island, New York, for Balto’s official graduation ceremony from America’s VetDogs. She met Balto’s sponsor family and the veteran Balto now lives with. It was a very emotional day for everyone.
“It was so amazing to see Balto doing what he was born and trained to do and to know I got to be a part of it,” Polk said.
One new command Balto learned since leaving Polk’s care was “rest.” This helpful command is used when his new owner is feeling anxious. Balto will sit very close to him and place his head on his owner’s lap to provide comfort.
While she does plan to volunteer again as a weekend puppy raiser, Polk was ready for a break. It is a lot of work, but well-worth the end result.
The process of raising and training a service dog takes a lot of time, finances and support. Veterans wait years to be paired with a service dog. America’s VetDogs is always looking for volunteers, and there are many ways to help through volunteering, sponsorships, community fundraising and more. If you or someone you know is interested, visit www.vetdogs.org.
Federal employees may support America’s VetDogs through the Combined Federal Campaign, which runs from September through January each year.