“In the six years prior to ABEL, we graduated 11 services dogs," she said. "And since ABEL has been a part of EENP, we have graduated 12 service dogs.”
She said the program does team building and personal development exercises because of its philosophy: "If the people doing the training are doing well, then the training will get done well."
“I think all of (the inmates) would say it’s more work than they thought it was, and that it’s even better work than they thought it would be,” she said.
Alden Rainey was once an inmate trainer with ABEL, but in December, he became the head dog trainer at EENP after being released from prison.
Rainey said when he saw the trainers with dogs for the first time, it was a sight that one does not see inside prison fences.
“It was one of the best experiences I could have had in a prison setting,” he said. “It was kind of like it was meant for me.”
Rainey was always an animal lover, but he did not have any dog training experience prior to ABEL. Instead, he grew up watching older men train dogs for fighting.
“It’s a small organization that’s growing, and I feel really a part of something,” he said. “It’s given me some opportunities in life that I had never seen before.”
The program hopes to get more inmates as full-time trainers once they are able to leave prison on work release.
“I never had a bank account, I’ve never had credit, I’ve never said ‘I wonder where I’m going to get a house,’’’ he said. “The things a man is supposed to have, or a person in general, this organization brought that to me.”
For one week every month, dogs rotate out of prison on “furlough,” where they live with an EENP staff trainer.
Volunteer and UNC student Allison Mcguire said furlough allows the dogs to work on their public behaviors, such as going down the escalator or interacting with children. Some dogs might perform certain skills flawlessly in prison but then have a hard time in public because of the stressful and distracting environment, she said.
“You can learn so much about the trainers through their dogs,” she said.
Mcguire said that the inmates invest in the success of their dogs and the program. The inmates are respectful, polite and engaged, she said.
“In a lot of ways they’re kind of protective of the staff, and I’ve always felt really really safe working with our trainers,” she said. “The culture in our program is the complete opposite of what you would find in the general prison population.”
She said the program works hard to develop a positive culture.
“It’s really interesting because two of foundational pieces of dog training are positivity and trust, and those are the two things that you really don’t find very much in prison, but that’s something that we really work to grow in our program,” Mcguire said.
She said since a prison’s culture is about punishment, it can be a negative environment. Prison does not allow much room for celebrating mistakes and learning from them.
“We consistently hear from our trainers when they leave that ‘nobody has ever cared about me like this in prison before, nobody has ever treated me like a person or cared about what I thought or (cared about) my feelings or cared about teaching me things that are actually important for my life after prison,’" she said.
EENP will be graduating three dogs and two clients, both of whom are UNC students, on March 3.