Deborah Schilling has been living with multiple sclerosis for 30 years. The disease cripples Schilling’s balance, forcing her to rely on a scooter to get around.
But after Schilling, 53, received a service dog, she was able to slowly reclaim some freedom. She no longer felt confined to her scooter or her Miami Beach home.
Her golden retriever, Sago, belongs to the New Horizons Service Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit which partners with South Florida prisons. Inmates are trained to teach the dogs to one day serve people in need – like the way Sago helps Schilling.
Participating facilities include the South Florida Reception Center in Doral and the Homestead Correctional Institution in Florida City, as well as two Central Florida institutions.
Never miss a local story.
Prisoners spend four to six months training dogs like Sago to serve people with various conditions, including amputees, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and children with autism.
With most of the prisoners serving life terms, they have the time to devote to dogs’ complete training, said Janet Severt, founder of New Horizons Service Dogs.
“These big macho guys cry when they have to give up their dogs,” she said.
Severt, who is a quadriplegic, started the service dog program after training her own dog to help her.
Severt now places 45 dogs a year with Floridians. Most of her dogs will have undergone prison training.
Severt established the first prison pup program in Miami Dade-County with the all male prison, South Reception Center, in 2010. Two years later, a program was started at the Homestead Correctional Institution, a women’s prison.
More than 19 prisons with 400 inmates work with similar dog programs, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
The programs are a positive experience that helps the prisoners while incarcerated and improves their employability upon departure, said Jessica Cary, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.
Murderers, burglars and drug dealers have all undergone training. In the eyes of the dogs, of course, they’re just men and women wearing similar uniforms.
Before training the pups, prisoners must go through a psychological screening and interviewing process.
Inmates with sex crimes on their records are barred from participating, said Patty Armfield, a New Horizons Service Dogs trainer.
Armfield, who has trained dogs for more than 30 years, interviews the prisoners before they can meet their new four-legged cellmates.
Once accepted, the prisoners move into a dorm where one or two of them will be assigned to each dog. The prisoners teach the dogs tasks ranging from the usual sit and stay commands to more difficult exercises. They can teach the dogs how to turn on lights or pick up credit cards (they can’t use actual cards so the prisoners use cardboard cut-outs instead).
But the dogs are doing much more than preparing to help their future owners. They’re lending their unconditional love to the prisoners.
“It gets them out from focusing on themselves to getting the dog out and doing the work,” Armfield said. “When they do that, they can start to empathize and start to heal.”
The golden retrievers and labradors are bred specifically for service. At eight weeks, the dogs begin rotating between volunteer homes and prisons.
After about two years of training, the dogs can be placed in their final home and meet the person for whom they’ve spent years preparing. The owners go through a two-week training with their dog and the organization’s trainers.
New Horizons donates the dogs to their clients. As a nonprofit, the company pays for the cost of raising and training the dogs through donations and grants.
Severt said New Horizons is always looking for puppy raisers to socialize the dogs outside prisons.
On June 29, New Horizons held a graduation for the volunteers, dogs and puppy raisers who took care of the dogs out of prison.
About 15 dogs from the Miami facilities went home with their new owners. At the ceremony, the volunteers were able meet their dogs’ new owners.
“Everybody was crying tears of happiness,” Severt said.
At the ceremony in Central Florida, a boy with autism spoke about how the dog had changed his life.
After two days with the dog, his mom said he opened up, Severt said.
For Schilling to receive her service dog, she had to get a doctor’s prescription and a letter of necessity, fill out an application, obtain letters of recommendation and complete an interview. Schilling waited three years for Sago.
When Sago was donated to her by New Horizons Service Dogs, she decided to create a book about him — Sago, A Very Special Service Dog — hoping it would educate people on how they should interact with service dogs. She did the illustrations herself.
Now, Schilling says she’ll do another book about Sago’s life through his perspective.
“There is no comparison to my life before Sago to my life after I got Sago,” she said. “You come to love them like a pet, but it’s a much deeper experience than a pet.”
To show the prisoners who they were truly helping, Schilling visited the South Florida Reception Center. She was able to see for herself how her service dog and his doggy friends were touching the lives of more than just their owners.
“He gave my life a lot of purpose and meaning,” she said.
Sago, she said, helped her get out of her prison.