Archive for April, 2009
A few months ago I was asked to photograph Sgt. Allen Hill with his new service dog Frankie, a lovely yellow lab who had been trained in a program called Puppies Behind Bars then transferred to Loveland for her introductory training with Hill. The PBB program, Sgt. Hill and Frankie are being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show sometime this spring (date TBD)!
Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Sgt. Alan Hill, has been home from Iraq for almost a year now but still lives in a war zone in his mind. Hill is coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has often been unable to function in his normal day to day life. Migraines have kept him in bed for as many as eight straight days. He is plagued with nightmares and “daymares” as he calls them; simple activities like going to the grocery store may reduce him to a puddle of anxiety.
According to a recent Rand Corporation survey, hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are dealing with PTSD. A plethora of treatments exist, including various forms of psychotherapy, group therapy, medications and EMDR, a form of hypnotherapy. Two weeks ago, Sgt. Hill braved a flight to Loveland, CO to become the tenth person to try a new type of therapy: a service dog.
Eight days later Hill is engaging in photo shoots and talking to reporters from Denver’s 9News with confidence. The remarkable progress is all thanks to his new best friend, a little blonde service dog named Frankie. “She does what she has to do to bring me back,” says Hill. At one point in the interview, Hill becomes emotional talking about his future so he pauses the conversation and calls Frankie to him for support. Almost instantly, he relaxes and is able to continue.
Frankie serves as a physical barrier between Hill and the interviewer, assuring that his personal space is never invaded. She also licks his face and offers a paw when she feels his anxiety level rising, thereby halting a panic attack before it can escalate.
Janet Bayless, one of the trainers who teaches the recipients how to work with their dogs, says the dogs are a safe zone because they’re non-judgmental. “When they begin to feel stress, we let that anxiety go down their arms, into their hands; they pet their dogs, the anxiety and those feelings go into the dog and the dogs just shake it off,” she explains. The effect on the human is nothing less than magic. Having a calm, faithful companion by their side is a vital ingredient that PTSD victims like Hill need to recover their confidence and their lives.
The idea of the Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) program is simple but life-altering for everyone involved. PBB teaches prison inmates to train puppies to become service dogs for the disabled and explosive detection canines for law enforcement.
Prisoners go through rigorous training to earn their way into the PBB program and are then assigned their own puppy whom they train to perform a minimum of 75 commands. Commands range in difficulty from basics like “sit” and “stay” to advanced commands like “phone 911” or “get help” and the dogs are expected to analyze situations and make potentially life-saving decisions on their own. They are trained to open and close doors, pick up items off the shelf and put in grocery basket, basically to do anything a disabled person might need them to do.
Inmates who qualify to teach the puppies are considered heroes in the system and their fellow prisoners treat them with great respect. Even better, they begin to treat themselves with greater respect, appreciating the difficulty of their task and taking pride in having an ability few others possess.
Jasmine, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, sums it up this way, “I might’ve did something before where I hurt somebody and now I’m doing something that is gonna help somebody so it makes you feel really good. Because there is a lot of personal growth in this program, I believe when I go home I actually can succeed in something.”
Billy from Mid-Orange Correctional Facility confirms Jasmine’s assessment, “I come here from max security after twenty years. I was really rigid. and now I just thank God I’m able to look back at that and see, ‘Man I was an ugly person.’ I’m a team player now; the dogs have really helped me become more compassionate. I’m looking forward to going home and doing the right thing.”
Sgt. Hill, who was paired with Frankie to manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, knows that her trainers did the right thing. “I am so very grateful to have Frankie so I have a chance of getting back to normal with my family.” His wife, Gina, agrees while she watches her husband playfully roll on the floor with their new family member, tickling her and being smothered in puppy kisses.