Pups at the pen: local inmates making time count

ALDEN, N.Y. (WIVB)- The hallways of the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden sport concrete walls, cells, and COs. It’s not the first place you’d think to train a puppy, but that’s what’s happening.

A few weeks ago, puppies Bellina and Andy wouldn’t dare leave their crates, let alone allow someone to pet them.

The shy little hound mixes were found alone and starving in a barn.

“They would cower, now they let us hold them and touch them, so they’ve come a really long way,” said one of the puppies’ trainers.

The pups’ fresh start? Behind bars.

“They need us, and we have enough time, obviously, we have plenty of time, to give them the time that they need,” inmate Karen Carter told News 4.

She’s part of the Pups at the Pen program, run through the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the Erie County SPCA.

Rita Ippolito runs the program from the SPCA side. She explained to News 4 some dogs don’t belong in a shelter setting.

“If there’s dogs in the kennel that are frightened, they get frightened. And some dogs are okay, they adjust after a few days, everything’s fine, they don’t mind being in a confined space and getting taken out two or three times a day, that doesn’t seem to bother them. And then you have other dogs that just completely shut down,” Ippolito said.

For those dogs, getting adopted is an even bigger challenge. That’s where inmate training comes in; a place like the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden offers the level of one-on-one training dogs like Andy and Bellina need.

The inmates normally only get a few dogs to work with at a time. The training lasts six weeks, after which both the inmates and their pups graduate.

“They have the women there that love them, the COs love them. And they get a lot of interaction and contact time, and it’s very good for them,” said Ippolito.

It’s also good for the inmates, like Karen Carter.

“I used to just come to jail and sleep,” she said.

“I didn’t socialize whatsoever and now I socialize. An officer, somebody I know very well, told me my heart grew two sizes since I’ve been on the dog unit.”

This time around, Carter has done a lot less sleeping and a lot more training.

“When I first came, she was grumpy and completely shut down,” Ippolito said of Carter.

“Never rude, but she would hang back and hang back. And as this program has progressed, she’s completely changed.”

Carter has formed a special bond with Andy.

From middle of the night feeding to waking up early to let him out, Andy has become part of her everyday routine; Carter said it’s made doing time meaningful.

“When they came here they were so (malnourished) and they needed love, you know what I mean? And helping them helped myself,” she told News 4.

Carter said she too, needed love. It’s something Andy has given her, in return for her training, which will help him find a home.

“They really do get attached to the dogs,” said Sgt. Deanna Lates.

Sgt. Lates sees a benefit to the program from a correctional stand-point. The women have to apply to be part of it, and maintain good behavior to stay remain participants.

“All the girls want to be there, so they have a little more privilege and the morale in that unit seems to be up, and just being able to work with the dogs seems to help them,” she said.

“It feels good to know somebody’s depending on you. Like if I don’t get up in the morning, they don’t don’t get fed. It’s just a good feeling,” Inmate Christine Altman said.

Altman told us the program has also given her some career aspirations after serving her time; she’d like to volunteer or work at the SPCA.

“They’ve turned me into a softy. Like I said, it teaches you empathy, compassion,” she said of the pups.

Karen Carter was released the day after filming, as were Andy and Bellina. The Erie County SPCA said the puppies found homes the very next day.

Since the program kicked off, every dog that graduated has been adopted.

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