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New leash on life

The program Puppies Behind Bars gives inmates the challenge - and joy - of raising guide dogs

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Does a prison inmate have the love and discipline required to properly nurture a puppy?

That question troubled Jane Russenberger when she first heard about Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), the unusual New York City-based program that allows inmates at two state prisons to raise guide dogs for the blind. But it's a question that Ms. Russenberger, senior director of breeding and placement for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide-dog training school in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., asks no more. Today, she is eager to work with all the prison-raised dogs she can.

"The love, the level of commitment, the high level of manners the dogs develop - what comes out of the prisons is different from what we're seeing anywhere else," she says.

At first glance, puppies and inmates may seem an incongruous pairing, but Gloria Gilbert Stoga, founder and president of PBB, has proven otherwise.

Puppies Behind Bars is not the first program of its kind. The idea had its genesis in Florida, and was replicated in Ohio. But Mrs. Stoga had an uphill battle before she was allowed to place puppies with inmates - first at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for female inmates in 1997, then at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for men in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1998.

Although the program costs the state nothing, prison authorities worried it could prove an unnecessary distraction at best, and a negative experience for the dogs at worst. Guide-dog schools and users were also concerned, questioning whether the prison environment could ever be an appropriate one for puppies.

For Stoga, however - who had earlier adopted a guide dog as a pet and took a great interest in the animals and their training - it was an idea with an immediate, innate appeal. "It just made so much sense," she says. "My interest was knowing the impact dogs could make in the life of a blind person and somehow intuitively grasping the impact they could also make on the lives of emotionally fragile people like prisoners."

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