Caitlin Hyland unlocked the puppy’s crate, scooped up the little chocolate Lab and gave her a kiss.
“Hello, puppy,” Hyland said.
The 10-week-old bundle of fur doesn’t have a name yet, but that’s coming. Hyland is one of four inmates at the Merrimack County Department of Corrections being asked to handle the puppies and get them house trained while teaching some basic obedience skills, like sit, stay and come.
The inmates and the puppies are part of a first-of-its-kind partnership between the jail and an organization called Hero Pups, which trains dogs to be companions to veterans and first responders who are dealing with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and challenges from their service.
So far, the partnership has been a success for the dogs, the inmates and the jail, said Hero Pups President Laura Barker.
“I’ve already seen the transformation in the inmates in attitude – the level of positivity is so much higher,” Barker said.
The dogs were introduced on Jan. 2 and Wednesday – when the jail publicly unleashed the new program – tails were wagging and people were smiling.
“The Merrimack County Department of Corrections has been absolutely phenomenal to work with,” Barker said. “These dogs are extremely well cared for, not only by the inmates, but the staff too. This was the right facility to be the first in the state.”
Typically, the dogs are sent to a temporary adoptive home for basic training, then go on to learn more advanced skills before being placed with a veteran. The partnership with the jail is helping both organizations: Hero Pups needs volunteers, and the jail is trying to teach inmates the skills and responsibility they need to be successful when they return to the community.
“The thing we lack the most is time,” Barker said, “which is something they have.”
The partnership was the idea of Merrimack County jail superintendent Ross Cunningham, who reached out to Hero Pups after the organization introduced Liberty, a four-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, to the Concord Police Department as a comfort dog.
The jail selected four inmates from its Successful Offender Adjustment Re-entry program who would soon be released back into the community to participate in the program. Meanwhile, Hero Pups selected four dogs that seemed good candidates for training.
The Stratham-based nonprofit showed up with four puppies, put them in a conference room and the dogs and inmates were introduced.
Hyland immediately gravitated to the female puppy in the group.
“It’s kind of human nature,” Barker said. “They selected each other.”
The puppies will stay at the jail for about two months before moving on to more intensive training to then become a service dog or therapy dog in the future. Saying goodbye to the puppies may be difficult, but it’s rewarding, Barker said.
“When the dog goes out, you know it’s going out to do something spectacular,” she said. “That softens the blow.”
The new partnership with the jail is keeping with Hero Pups’ mission to raise and train as many dogs as it can, but their ultimate mission is to get the animals paired with veterans and first responders.
“Yes, we get to help dogs, but we are a people-based organization,” Barker said. “We want to help people through the dogs.”
If more county jails want to partner with Hero Pups, they’ll take it, Barker said. The waiting list is about a year for a veteran to receive a fully-trained dog.
“We’re not trying to place dogs, we’re trying to help people, Barker said. “The more the merrier.”