North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is participating in ICAP, an Inmate Canine Assistance Program.
The DOCR works with Service Dogs for America to get the dogs trained and ready to assist people in need.
“Our prison has historically been the puppy prison. We get them brand new and start teaching them the basics. Our job is to get these dogs ready to go into their forever home, and be that assistance dog for an individual with a disability,” said Mandi Tipton, the liaison for the MRCC, Canine Assistance Program.
The incarcerated handlers are chosen through an interview process. Once chosen, they are paired with a four-legged companion and assigned a shift with the animal.
“I wake up at 5, go get the dog, feed her breakfast. I come back and have to train them for two to 10 minutes every hour. That consists of your basic heel, sit, snuggle instead of just waking up every day and doing nothing, you know. I get to be with a dog, I get to train a dog, see her in advance. In the end, it’s helping everybody. It’s not just helping me. It’s helping the person she’s going to go to,” said Shane Kittleson.
William Downey has been incarcerated for nearly six years. He says he just started working in the program a couple of months ago.
“This program really helps us to stay positive and focus on the end goal which is getting out and doing good,” said Downey.
Downey says they take the training seriously, and it’s not always easy.
“There are things that are challenging. The seizure cues, the PTSD cues. It’s kind of hard to get the dogs to learn that stuff,” said Downey.
Mandi Tipton, the liaison for the canine program, says it’s a good thing for everyone involved.
“The public, in general, has certain views about the prison system. I think a lot would be surprised that we have guys down here taking care of dogs and training dogs and doing things above and beyond what they need to do to better themselves and learn those skills. That is going to help them be better people out in the community,” said Tipton.
The dog handlers spend most of their day training and return the dogs to their kennels in the evening. At any given time, there are three dogs being trained at the Missouri River Correctional Center.
The North Dakota State Penitentiary and James River Correctional facilities are also participating in the program.
Programs like these have been in North Dakota since around 2008.
The DOCR says they plan to continue working with Service Dogs for America in the future.