The Telegraph - Midstate inmates, volunteers help raise guide dogs for the blind


BY LAURA CORLEY lcorley@macon.com

FORSYTH — The tall, thin man wearing a white jumpsuit recently was led through an obstacle course of orange cones by a young, black Labrador named Elliot, who knew just where to go.

Convicted of vehicular homicide in 2010, 33-year-old William Davis wasn't expecting to take interest in a new career field during his decade-long sentence in the state Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth.

"I didn't ever think I'd be hanging out with a dog in prison," said Davis, who is one of nine inmates currently in the prison's "Vision Program." That program gives inmates the opportunity to raise guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired while also taking virtual classes for a veterinary helper certificate from Central Georgia Technical College.

Though Davis is new to the program, which has been around about seven years, he said he's always been a dog lover. Now that he's been taught to train dogs, Davis said he has thought about pursuing a career in a canine-related field, such as kennel owner or personal trainer when he is released in 2020.

"I worked on cars all my life. I never thought about doing anything with dogs," Davis said. "So a change of heart does a lot. ... It's a constant process of getting to know them, and you get to know yourself more (by) working with them."

The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, a nonprofit based in New York, provides dogs, a trainer, dog food and supplies to the prison. The inmates teach the dogs verbal commands, obedience and social skills for about a year and a half before the dogs are taken back to New York for formal training prior to being matched with a recipient.

Terry Johnson, 46, has participated in the program since its inception.

"It's the best job you could have in prison," said Johnson, who is serving a 15-year sentence for a 2003 armed robbery. "I never knew that I would do anything like this where you could actually train (a dog) and give back to someone."

Johnson is the inmate handler of Barron, a 14-month-old black poodle he will part with in June. Since November 2014, Johnson has bathed Barron, brushed his teeth, cleaned his ears and oversaw his training.

"During the day, he's my responsibility," Johnson said. "It's hard to let them go. I mean, you bond with them."

The dogs are with the inmates about 15 hours each day for five days a week, said Cathy Pittman, who oversees the program at the prison. An inmate's eligibility to participate in the program depends on criminal history, academic level and behavior, Pittman said. On the weekends, the dogs are cared for by a handful of volunteers in Middle Georgia.

"Obedience can really be made up, (but) socialization can't be," Pittman said, adding that the dogs are cared for by volunteers who expose them to different stimuli outside the prison gates. "They have to be familiar with everything we can possibly expose them to so there's no surprises when they get out and they're actually guides."

While there's only seven dogs currently at the prison, Pittman said there could be more if more volunteers were willing to help raise one of the puppies on weekends.

"It's something that sounds good sometimes on the surface, but when the reality of it sets in, you know, there's a commitment ... and expectations of making sure that dog gets socialized while you have them," Pittman said. "(Raising the puppies) is a great thing, and it's great for the inmates as well. It's a win-win. ... It's very rewarding."

Over the past seven years, 39 of the 57 dogs that have been raised at Burruss have gone on to become guide dogs, Pittman said.

'PLEASE DON'T PET MY DOG. HE'S WORKING'

David Butler, a 49-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative, and his wife, Nancy, a high school art teacher at First Presbyterian Day School, had decided their family wasn't suitable for a dog, even though their children wanted one.

"We're too busy for a dog. We're gone all day," David Butler said he told them. "That's just not fair to the dog."

And Nancy Butler, who never had a dog while growing up, "was just never a dog person," he said.

But all that changed in 2013 after Nancy Butler bumped into a friend at the grocery store who was walking with a dog training to be a guide.

"The dog just sat there quietly while she talked and while she was shopping," David Butler said. "My wife came home and she said, 'Baby, you got to call this lady.' ... I sat on it for two or three months, and finally she said, 'I really want you to call this lady.' So, I finally called her."

The family took classes and read manuals provided by the guide dog foundation about how to raise the dogs. In total, the family has helped raise three dogs and expect to welcome their fourth this month.

"We did this really for the children so they would have a pet, but it's turned out to be (that) Nancy and I do 90 percent of the work," David Butler said of their weekend visitors. "This is the first time (Nancy has) ever had a dog in her house, ever. It's very interesting. She looks at this very much as a ministry, as something that she can do more so than having a pet."

Weekend volunteers are encouraged to take the dogs everywhere they would normally go -- including stores and restaurants -- because the law allows the same exceptions for a guide dog in training as it does a certified guide dog, David Butler said.

Raising a guide dog is much different from raising a pet, said Deana Izzo, field representative for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind who oversees the Southern region. Guide dogs have strict rules and regulations. For instance, they are not allowed to have snacks or pick up items, and they must be trained to relieve themselves on concrete.

"There's particular reasons why we don't let the dog on the furniture, because this isn't going to be your dog," Izzo said. "This is going to be a dog living in somebody else's home, and that person may not want the dog on their furniture."

David Butler said one of the struggles of raising a guide dog is not allowing people to pet it when they're in public.

"It's really not good for that blind person, because now he's lost control of the dog," David Butler said. "So that's the hardest thing that we have to deal with ... telling people, some of whom are our friends, 'Please don't pet my dog. He's working. Please don't pet the dog.' And also, it's training the dog to not seek attention from strangers."

Though none of the dogs the family has raised so far has successfully made it through the official training in New York, David Butler said the family will continue to volunteer on the weekends. Dogs that don't make the cut to be a guide are either sent to a partner organization where the dog can learn other jobs such as bomb sniffing, for instance, or adopted by a family.

"I learned so much about how to handle dogs," David Butler said. "If I ever have another dog of my own, I'll be a much better dog owner. ... I don't know if that will ever happen. We may just stay in the program, because it seems to be working for us."

If a dog completes the formal training in New York, the foundation holds a "celebration Sunday," an event where those who helped raise the puppy have an opportunity to meet the recipient and see the dog for what could be the last time, Izzo said.

While some have a hard time saying goodbye, Izzo said most come into the program with expectations of their time with the animals being temporary, and "they keep that thought in the forefront of their minds."

"The end goal is, you know, helping somebody achieve a level of independence that could not be achieved otherwise," said Izzo, who's kept in touch with the recipient of a dog she raised about 25 years ago. "You will never impact somebody the way that you will by giving this type of a gift of independence. ... What you get out of it long-term is something you can't really explain until you do it, but it's such a phenomenal sense of accomplishment. It's very self-rewarding."