Five years ago when ICAN founder Sally Irvin first approached Indiana prisons, the response was something like, “Who is this crazy dog lady?”
Irvin wanted to start a program modeled after one begun 28 years ago by a nun in Washington state, in which prisoners were put in charge of training service dogs for people with disabilities.
“They finally realized I wasn’t going away,” she says with a laugh.
Now, three area prisons are enthusiastically embracing the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (formerly ICAAN), and over 40 “graduates” have been placed as either service dogs to the disabled or in-home therapy dogs. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The program is as much about process as product.
Irvin, the nonprofit’s executive director, sees the dogs as catalysts for positive change on many levels. Offenders live with, care for and train their potential service dogs for nearly two years, requiring a level of commitment they may never have known before. The skills required often end up overlapping with life skills.
For example, the handlers learn to use positive reinforcement for desired behaviors, setting the dogs up for success. Each dog has a unique personality, just like people, and the handlers are encouraged to play to their particular dog’s strengths. This approach may be one that the offenders have never before experienced — one that, as Irvin points out, translates handily to interpersonal interactions.
The families receiving an ICAN dog meanwhile undergo an intensive application process. Most ICAN clients are children and adolescents, many with mobility issues. Some have developmental disabilities like autism or Down’s syndrome. Each client is carefully matched with a specific dog that meets his or her needs.
When the training process is complete and the dog is ready, the offender has the responsibility of teaching the recipient family how to handle the dog. Here again, Irvin points to some unquantifiable transformations as the offender and client team up for two weeks before the final handover.
“We see those preconceived notions just get blown out of the water,” she says. The recipients quickly see beyond their stereotypes of criminals, realizing that their dog’s trainer is a decent person who made a terrible mistake.
Handlers in turn begin to understand how fortunate they are to be able-bodied. “They start to say, ‘This person goes through so much just to get here this morning. I have to train the next dog to be even better,’” Irvin says.
The public can see ICAN canine trainee/handler teams in action during monthly prison tours called “If These Dogs Could Talk.” Registration is required a week in advance at www.icaan.net.
— Shawndra Miller