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'We feel like people again' | A program at prisons trains service dogs for police departments, veterans

The program works with inmates in New York and New Jersey to train new service dogs donated across the country.

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — To the outside eye, it is just a group of dogs playing in the yard. However, these pups are in the middle of a prison yard at a maximum-security prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y. getting training to become service dogs.

It is all part of “Puppies Behind Bars” – a pet project founder Gloria Stoga began more than 25 years ago that has grown to include six different prisons in New York and New Jersey.

“Puppies Behind Bars trains prison inmates in New York and New Jersey to raise service dogs that we donate to first responders and bomb detection K9s, which go to law enforcement, and some of our service dogs go to veterans,” Stoga told FOX61 recently.

Stoga visits the inmates – male and female – typically once a week to teach them.

At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford, N.Y., there are currently 16 inmates who are part of the Puppies Behind Bars program. They train the dogs – all Labrador Retrievers – from typically 8 weeks old to 2 years old. The dogs are then paired with a police officer or a veteran.

“Puppies Behind Bars offers an opportunity to contribute to society,” Stoga said. “We’re in a prison where there are over 600 inmates – 16 have chosen to do this.”

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One of those inmates is Nicole Addimando, whose murder case garnered national attention. She has been involved in the Puppies Behind Bars for more than two years.

“There is no way to right some of the wrongs with what has happened, what brought us here,” she told FOX61 News. “This is a way we can be productive with our time and do something positive that can ultimately give back.”

Addimando, a mother of two young sons, recently won her appeal with the State of New York under the Domestic Violence Survivors Act, she will be free in about two and a half years and plans to focus on working with the dogs until then.

“This is the only place in this (prison) environment where we kind of get humanity back,” she said. “We feel like people again and we get to do something with our time that’s meaningful.”

The Puppies Behind Bars program has placed dogs across the country. In Connecticut, there are currently five K9s who graduated from the program.

In Middletown, Officer Jay Bodell is teamed with K9 Bear, a lovable and loyal black lab, who is used largely in therapeutic roles all around the area. Like all the Puppies Behind Bars graduates, Bear is a fully recognized ADA service dog.

“The police officers and prisoners work together, and we learn all our commands and what these dogs have learned comes directly from the prisoners,” Bodell said.

Credit: Jimmy Altman/FOX61

Officer Rich Simons, a 28-year veteran of the Yale University Police Department, works with K9 Heidi, an energetic yellow lab that has become a hit on campus.

“The highlight of my career was getting trained by inmates and getting a partner like Heidi. We go to work every day, (she’s) my best friend,” Simons exclaimed.

Puppies Behind Bars has also placed dogs at police departments in Groton, Naugatuck, and Torrington.

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Bodell said he believes more highly trained K9s are coming to Connecticut in the months and years ahead and remains an advocate for the program.

“They are trying to right their wrongs by giving back to society and the police departments and veterans benefit the most,” Bodell said of the prisoners.

Credit: Jimmy Altman/FOX61

Back at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Stoga added: “These highly trained service dogs are making a huge difference in people’s lives and in the lives of the community and that never gets old.”

Addimando, alongside a Labrador named Katie, said: “We could sit in a cell all day or we could work with these animals all day long and know that they are going to leave here with a purpose.”

The non-profit program enlists volunteers for funding, sponsorship of the dogs, and giving their time to help acclimate the dogs to the outside world. To learn more about the Puppies Behind Bars program click here.

Jimmy Altman is a reporter at FOX61 News. He can be reached at jaltman@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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