On the second floor of the school house, seven women in khaki pants and bright red shirts inscribed with “ICAN” on the left breast are arranging chairs in a circle. Each woman has a leash in her hand. At the end of each leash is a service dog in training. As the chairs squeak and drag across the floor, the dogs stay next to their handlers, almost pressed against their sides, exactly as they’ve been trained to do. Tonight the women and their dogs will be on display.
Once everyone is settled into their seats, Lara begins to speak. Lara is clearly the den mother in the room. She doesn’t appear to be of any greater age than the other women, but the way she speaks is marked with a distinct confidence. There’s a sense of certainty that falls over the room when Lara speaks, as if no matter what she says or does, it will be the right thing. It puts the others at ease.
“When I feel bad for myself for having made bad decisions and being in prison, I think about that poor baby girl in a wheel chair who can’t even walk.” This statement from Lara resonates with the other women. Sure they’ve done things they shouldn’t have, but through the ICAN program they have a chance to give back. The opportunity to help others and feel pride in themselves despite their residency at the Indiana Women’s Prison.
It’s a particularly cold February night. The wide-open courtyard of the prison creates an unobstructed path for the wind to kiss you on the back of your neck and trickle down your collar. The sidewalks between buildings have been shoveled clear of snow, but everywhere else is colored white. There are benches in the middle of the courtyard, lending it the appearance of a park. On the east side of the grounds there is a patio with tables and chairs for when the women have visitors. The patio is similar to that of a mid-range restaurant like Applebee’s. Except at Applebee’s they don’t top the fence with razor wire.
The evening begins with a demonstration by Ashley. Ashley is one of the younger handlers. When she speaks about herself, there’s a nervous and apprehensive tone in her voice. But as soon as she's talking about the dogs and her work with them, her voice fills with pride and her body language shifts. Ashley's found confidence in her work with the Indiana Canine Assistance Network. The other women say when Ashley first arrived, she could barely even speak to the other handlers. Now she is at the center of the group with all eyes on her and she doesn’t miss a beat.
Ashley starts by telling the room about facility placements. If a dog gets nervous or scared in public, then they are trained to be placed in facilities such as hospitals. One dog that Ashley graduated, Denny, went to an occupational health facility. Denny made an immediate connection when he arrived, making friends with a lonely patient by playing together with a tennis ball. These moments might seem insignificant, but to the people they help, they’re huge. This isn’t lost on the handlers who, like Ashley, perk up the most when talking about how the dogs they train have helped other people.
One way the dogs help is by alerting people with diabetes to changes in their blood sugar. One of the dogs that Lara trained for diabetic alerts went to a little girl named Katy. When Katy sleeps at night, her blood sugar drops. This is a particularly troublesome way for diabetes to manifest itself. So Lara trained a dog to alert Katy’s parents in the middle of the night if the dog smells a drop in Katy’s blood sugar levels.
Lara showed the group how she trains the dogs to smell the drops in blood sugar. First, her dog Lilly was taken out of the room and into the hallway. Once she was out there, Lara pulled out a small canister that had been scented with the sweat of someone with diabetes. (When the individual has low blood sugar, they’re asked to collect some of their sweat so that the dogs can be taught what their individual smell is during the dips in blood sugar.)
Lara then hid the item under her leg and called for Lilly to be brought back in. Lilly immediately began nuzzling Lara’s leg, pushing to get at the source of the scent. Upon finding the item, Lara gave Lilly a special treat. As Lilly enjoyed her prize, Lara held the scented object up to her nose to help create an association between the scent and the treat. The dogs can smell a drop in someone’s blood sugar up to 30 minutes before a machine would be able to detect it.
There are unique challenges to training dogs inside of a prison. The women aren’t allowed to have phones or keys, but are regularly tasked with training the dogs to retrieve those very items. This creates a need for improvisation on the part of the handlers.
Once, a dog needed to be trained to climb in and out of a hatchback car. So the women built a mock hatchback car trunk out of cardboard and trained the dog that way. They also use calculators to stand in for cell phones.
As the night continued, each woman was given a chance to present their dog and what they had taught them. Stephanie, Mindy, Lara, Anessa, Ashley, Jessica, and Angela all displayed an ability to train their dogs well beyond anything you might learn at your local PetSmart. Two of the dogs that were trained by this group now work for the United Nations. One sniffing for drugs, the other for bombs.
“15 minutes. 15 minutes until eight o'clock,“ the speaker on the wall cracked at the group. It wasn’t just 15 minutes until eight, it was 15 minutes until the women would have to retreat back to their living quarters, a small building, longer than it is tall, surrounded by fence and razor wire. Before they went back into the cold, each woman put their khaki jacket on, covering the ICAN label of their shirts with their inmate badges.