The Warren Correctional Institution, in partnership with Chapel Hill/Carrboro, N.C.-based nonprofit Eyes Ears Nose & Paws, graduated two dogs from “At Both Ends of the Leash” (ABEL), a medical alert and mobility assistance dog training program, with a number of trainers also receiving promotions to the next level of proficiency on Thursday.

The ABEL program allows offenders to train service dogs, working with EENP to develop the training regimen. The end goal is to place the dogs in homes of EENP clients with assistance needs.

Founder and program director of EENP, Deb Cunningham, presided over the leash ceremony. 

“After having done this program for awhile, I realized that the challenge isn’t the dog. The challenge is more about how much the trainers believe in themselves,” she said. “Do they feel in their heart that they will be able to train this little puppy to be able to pass all of the evaluations? We focus on setting goals and how to be successful. Then I set a goal for myself, like can I make this guy hear, ‘I believe in you,’ a hundred times this month, which means I have to say it a thousand times.”

The dogs are trained for 18 months to perform tasks like getting help when their human is about to experience a seizure, or to detect when a diabetic’s sugar levels are spiking or crashing. 

The ceremony included a skills demonstration to display tasks geared towards the life activities of their future owners. The offender trainers commanded their dogs through obstacle courses, a series of chores, and skits based on life possibilities.

The first demo was a Halloween-based egg hunt, presented by trainer Matt Hutchinson and trainee Charlie. Charlie was commanded to dress and practically dove into a holiday sweater. Then Hutchinson commanded Charlie to retrieve eggs from a present, refrigerator, and an audience member before placing them in a basket. Charlie’s final task was to retrieve a green egg from a table that contained green, purple, and red eggs. 

David Bishop, one of the trainers in ABEL, spoke to the audience about the difference between rehabilitation versus the status quo of the life of an inmate. After a testimony about his past and life in prison, he talked about being accepted into ABEL. 

“The moment I walked in the door, it felt like I had found what I was lacking,” Bishop said. “Now every day I am building and improving my dog training skills, as well as my people and life skills. There is a network of positive relationships around me including all the people around me today. The wicked kicker for me is, now instead of hurting people, I actually help other people with dogs that improve their lives.”

Bishop’s speech was followed by a demonstration presented by Alonzo Henderson, with John Levery and his dog, Tahoe, and Dante Santiago and his dog, Stinson. They demonstrated real world situations where a human with mobility issues might need help. The trainers started in wheelchairs, but quickly fell out of them. The dogs were instructed to go get help, but also moved around their humans to boost them up and act as props to push off of so the trainers could get back in the wheelchairs.

Other demonstrations included an obstacle course where the dogs had to navigate through and over different structures set around the floor, a game show where several dogs competed to respond to commands first, and a real world situation demonstration where a dog is quickly approached by a stranger and had to remain calm. 

The final demonstration was a race between two dogs and the trainers. The trainers were in wheelchairs, and the dogs were instructed to carry items from one basket to the other. Tahoe, the winning dog, carried the entire basket of items after his first two trips and was crowned the winner. 

During the leash ceremony, new puppies are welcomed into the program, while trained dogs are graduating and going to their clients. Two pups, Zoey and Hunter, were initiated into the program, while Barton and Orion graduated as service animals. 

The second part of the ceremony was a certificate and leash presentation to the trainers. All of the trainers start with red leashes, and once those skills are mastered, they receive a blue then silver leash. 

Pamela Leonard, a correctional case manager and the liaison between EENP and Warren Correctional, works with the trainers in the program every day. Leonard said that there are 16 offenders in the ABEL program training 11 dogs at a time. After this leash ceremony, eight to 10 dogs will have graduated from Warren Correctional. 

The offenders can qualify for ABEL if they have 18 months to dedicate to the program, are infraction free, and have no history of cruelty to animals. At that point both Warren Correctional and EENP personnel interview them. 

“I have seen guys that come in and don’t understand the totality of what’s being asked of them,” said Leonard. “They sleep with the dogs in the block, they take care of the dogs 24/7. They don’t realize how much work it is.”

Leonard said that this is one of the most sought after programs. “Everyone wants to play with the puppies,” she said.

“This is the best program to make your time count, rather than count time,” said trainer Carlos Gonzalez, who has been in the program for 14 months. “This is the only program in prison that I’ve seen, that the guards aren’t telling us what to do. It’s more to have the community within each other as inmates and work together. It’s not something you can read off of a manual. Every dog is different.”

According to Gonzales and trainer Angel Mellows, it is bittersweet to see a dog graduate that they put so much work into, but comforting to know that that dog is helping someone.