Dog sponsorship change impacts FD family

Sponsors can no longer meet dogs involved in Leader Dog program

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Drew Young, an inmate at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, interacts with a leader dog in training at Puppy Days Sunday afternoon. Mary Beth Montiplaisir and Bruce Montiplaisir, of Altura, Minnesota, look on. The couple are sponsoring the puppy shown here, named Polly.

Supporters of the prison puppy program at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility will no longer be able to meet the dog they sponsor, according to Melissa Weisse, chief philanthropy officer for Leader Dogs for the Blind, a guide dog training school located in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

The puppies will still be trained by inmates at prisons throughout the United States, including at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, Weisse said.

“We have inmate raisers there now and a long history and tradition of that,” Weisse said. “They are a very vital part of our prison puppy program.”

But sponsorships are no longer being accepted at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. Instead the sponsorships will go through the Leader Dogs for the Blind program.

Weisse said the sponsorship change, which was implemented about a year ago, was necessary to allow the program to continue its growth.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Jen Parker, of Des Moines, sits alongside Diarmait, a yellow lab, at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility Sunday afternoon. Jen Parker and her husband Robert Parker are raising Diarmait.

“To be consistent nationwide, we really cannot have individual puppies being named and sponsored,” Weisse said. “We have a training methodology across all of the prisons, so to be consistent and sustainable we couldn’t continue that.”

The puppy program began in Iowa in 2002 and is in 12 prisons in three different states.

Weisse said not every correctional facility involved in the program wanted the general public to visit with dogs.

“What happens across the country is that not every warden in every correctional facility wants people coming in and doing that,” she said. “It can be very different. So in order to make it consistent and focus on the mission, we made that change. This allows many more people to be a part of sponsoring a puppy. So while it’s a change for some people, we hope they will continue to support the mission. We are very grateful for their passion and for helping us get where we are because it makes such a difference for people nationwide.”

Through the Leader Dogs for the Blind program, puppies are trained by inmates to become seeing-eye dogs for their eventual owners.

-Submitted photo Wolfie Dillingham, of Fort Dodge, met Coco in September of 2016 at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. Janice Link, of Fort Dodge, is shown next to him. The family made a tradition out of sponsoring leader dogs at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

The sponsorship change has had local implications for families like Janice and Al Link, of Fort Dodge. The family made a tradition of sponsoring the puppies and enjoyed meeting them.

Before, people could sponsor a dog for $500. They would have the opportunity to name the dog, visit the dog, and even take the dog to various places around the community.

The news of the sponsorship change was disappointing for Janice Link.

“Well, it actually broke our heart,” she said.

The Links are the legal guardians to Wolfie Dillingham, a young man with special needs.

Dillingham spends much of his time working at LifeWorks Community Service in Fort Dodge.

Through his work there, Dillingham was able to make enough money to sponsor his own dog at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in 2016.

In September of that year, he was able to meet the dog he sponsored.

That sort of connection will no longer be possible.

“Wolfie’s dog has already been sent to Michigan for additional training, but they are not going to be able to have people sponsor dogs out here at the prison anymore,” Janice Link said. “When those dogs are already trained out here, they will no longer be able to sponsor dogs.”

Weisse said people can still sponsor puppies symbolically.

“They just can’t name individual puppies and it’s because of growth, which is ultimately a good thing for the mission,” Weisse said. “We will just be launching our new Iowa puppy to be sponsored in the coming weeks. We have had actually a lot of support from Iowa, in Fort Dodge and beyond for that. Now your donation goes to support all puppies raised in prisons, all puppies raised for Leader Dogs for the Blind.”

“That’s our end goal is to put more dogs in the hands of people who are blind,” Weisse added.

Sponsors will receive a packet with a picture of the puppy they sponsor and a short story about the dog being raised.

Janice Link said sponsoring a puppy symbolically isn’t the same.

“That doesn’t do Wolfie any good,” she said.

The family visited the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility recently for a puppy days event.

“We went out and they had their puppy days, but this wasn’t like before where you went out and they put on a program and put the dog through their paces,” Janice Link said. “This was just going inside the prison and the inmates would bring your dog down and you could sit there and talk to them and pet the dog and play with him or whatever. Of course, Al and I still have dogs out there, so we registered for the three of us, Wolfie and Al and I. We got a chance to see our dogs. Of course, it was sad to know this will be the last time we will be able to see the dogs.”

She added, “It was a good deal and we are truly going to miss it. But there isn’t too much we can do about it.”

Some statistics to consider:

According to Melissa Weisse, chief philanthropy officer for Leader Dogs for the Blind, the puppy program began in 2002 in Iowa and is in 12 prisons in three different states.

n According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, there is a 17 percent reduced recidivism rate in Iowa because of prison puppies.

“People are less likely to offend,” Weisse said.

• Leader Dogs for the Blind has had 1,500 prison puppy raisers.

• 75,000 people go blind in the United States every year.

• 1.3 million people in the United States are legally blind.

• 90 percent of the people Leader Dogs for Blind serve live in low income settings.

• 60 percent are unemployed and 43 percent live with depression. 10 percent travel independently with a dog.

For more information on the Leader Dogs for the Blind program, email mweisse@leaderdog.org.


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