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In Yaphank jail program, inmates train shelter dogs

In the new "Handcuffs to Healing" program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank, inmates are helping train homeless dogs that will be put up for adoption at the Town of Brookhaven Animal Shelter. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, Newsday got a closer look at how the program works. (Credit: James Carbone)

On Wednesday afternoon, a man with a walker suddenly fell while strolling with Bain, a young Rottweiler mix. Bain, concerned, rushed over to the man’s side and provided his body as a support to lean on while the man got back to his feet.

The scene of his stumble wasn’t a local park, but rather Suffolk County’s Yaphank Correctional Facility.

The man was Michael Gould, president and founder of Hounds Town Charities, who was “disguised” as an elderly man with a mask and a walker. He was helping Bain demonstrate new skills learned in a Yaphank program that pairs inmates with shelter dogs.

Handcuffs to Healing is a pilot program that teaches inmates how to train dogs and aims to make shelter dogs more adoptable. Bain and the program’s five other dogs, all abandoned or surrendered, were selected from the Town of Brookhaven Animal Shelter.

The six inmates, all nonviolent offenders, were given a motto for the training sessions: “firm hand, kind heart.” They spend three days a week, two hours each day, with the dogs during the six-week program.

“We’re rehabbing humans through animals,” Gould said. The dogs include mixes of breeds that have gotten reputations as “bully breeds,” like pit bulls and Rottweilers, Gould said. Some are being trained as therapy dogs.

On Wednesday, the inmates and the dogs assigned to them shared what they’ve learned so far in a demonstration at the jail. The dogs know not only how to sit, stay, heel and lie down, but also how to respect space and react to human body language.

“Getting to know dogs can be hard,” said inmate Michael Lounsbury, 35, of upstate Montgomery. “They’ve lived a certain way already.”

Only one dog, Bain, barked during the presentation, when he spotted a guard step out from a nearby security booth. The dog quieted when his trainer stood and commanded him to stop.

Gould said Bain’s reaction was exactly what someone would want from a guard dog when a person appears unexpectedly.

“We’re hoping that the animal shelter will be able to put more dogs up for adoption,” Yaphank Undersheriff Steven Kuehhas said. “And if the people know that they’re being trained, that they’ll be more amenable to going to the shelter and adopting dogs.”

The program is a “win-win” situation because it also provides inmates with skills they can potentially use to find a job later, he added.

Inmates were allowed to volunteer for a spot in the program if they were nonviolent offenders and had a local sentence that lasted as long as the program, which finishes at the end of October.

“I bond with dogs to begin with,” said inmate Joseph Dima, 36, from Bohemia, who has owned dogs before. “I felt coming here, it would help with some forms of anxiety.”

After the current program ends, the participating organizations will discuss future plans. Gould said they are looking for corporate sponsors because of the program’s costs, estimated at $2,500 per dog.

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