Helping hounds

The Winnipeg Foundation

Service dog training program helps formerly incarcerated participants build skills and reintegrate

George Leonard
George Leonard, MSAR’s Master Trainer.

Service dogs change lives. For those suffering from debilitating disabilities and illnesses, a service dog can increase safety and quality of life.

For those coming out of jail, reintegrating into society can be difficult. They face stigma and barriers, and often have trouble finding employment.

Through a new program that teaches its participants to train service dogs, the John Howard Society is helping formerly incarcerated people gain volunteer and work experience, and improve their confidence and self-esteem.

“I saw a lot of growth just within six weeks in terms of [participants’] socialization and their comfort levels,” says Carmen Vielfaure, Coordinator of the John Howard Society’s Canine Healing Services program. “It really empowers a person when they can do something they really enjoy, feel good about themselves and feel good about the work they’re putting into it.”

The John Howard Society of Manitoba offers supports to help men coming out of jail reintegrate into society, including literacy services, and parenting and anger management courses. Canine Healing Services teaches the men to train service dogs for people with a variety of disabilities including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is a focus on providing dogs for those who have been held in or worked at a correctional facility.

Canine Healing Services was developed in partnership with MSAR Elite Service Dogs, which trains dogs

for all types of service purposes - from autism to tactical. The Foundation had previously supported development of MSAR’s K9 dog training program from 2006 to 2008 and suggested the two organizations work together when the John Howard Society began discussing plans to create the program.

“It’s always good to give somebody a second chance,” says George Leonard, MSAR’s Master Trainer. “We’re going to help the John Howard Society build the infrastructure to help even more people.”

The program launched in September 2017 with three student trainers, who each complete six weeks of volunteering with MSAR before applying and interviewing for a paid position. After completing a two-year training course, which includes an online component as well as hands-on training with Mr. Leonard, participants will be able to train dogs for the John Howard Society of Manitoba.

“It’s definitely a long-term collaboration,” says John Hutton, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba. “The dogs themselves are certified according to standards that MSAR has developed.”

In addition to increasing participants’ skills and employability, the training program also allows them to develop prosocial skills.

“They’re surrounded by positive peers and role models and they’re supported throughout by me as a coordinator,” Ms. Vielfaure says. “If ever there are obstacles like substance abuse or just wanting to work on communication or something like that, I’m always on hand to help out.”

It takes approximately one year to train and certify a service dog. Near the end of the training, dogs and the people they’re matched with learn to work with one another. Training sessions often take place in public places like malls or grocery stores.

“[We] try and get the dog used to [having] a lot of distractions happening around them but keeping their focus on their owner,” Ms. Vielfaure says.

Ms. Vielfaure notes that having a service dog can make a big difference for someone who experiences anxiety or is affected by noises or sounds that trigger their trauma.

“It brings focus for the person so that they can just focus on the dog, try to regulate themselves and process what’s going on.”

A Community Grant from The Winnipeg Foundation provided core funding for the program and helped the John Howard Society of Manitoba develop a business plan and marketing plan to sustain the program over the long term.

In addition to having the capacity to train their own dogs during the next few years, the John Howard Society of Manitoba hopes the program will build a social enterprise that will continue to provide jobs for those facing barriers to employment.

“This project is going to take us in new directions as an organization and we’re looking forward to that,” Mr. Hutton says. “But the business plan will help us find our way and that’s something we’re receiving as a result of support from The Winnipeg Foundation.”

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