Trainers for service dogs that assist people with physical disabilities may be found at the unlikeliest of places - the state prison at Muncy.
"We have an entire training facility here," Troy Edwards, assistant to the superintendent at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, said. "The dogs learn hand signals, voice commands, how to turn light switches on and off and even learn how to pay someone at the register."
The area facility for female prisoners recently received four new puppies to train. It also has two dogs that are about 10 months old that are in the process of being trained, Edwards said.
Making that mission possible are two area veterinarian hospitals that provide free care for the animals in the Canine Partners for Life program, a non-profit organization that uses prisoners to help train service dogs.
The Loyalsock Animal Hospital and the Animal Care Hospital in Lewisburg both provide services, Edwards said.
The dogs usually stay at SCI Muncy for 12 months, but two dogs were ahead in their training so they went back to Canine Partners for Life, based in Cochranville, Chester County, Edwards said.
The four puppies will stay at the institution for a year and live in the prisons with inmate trainers who teach them basic obedience skills.
After one year, the dogs are returned to Canine Partners for Life and intensive training continues.
But even the "basic" training is much more than what most dogs get.
The dogs get a lot out of the program, and so do the inmates, because participating in the program is a privilege, Edwards said.
"It's an incentive program," Edwards explained. "It's a rigorous screening process to get into the program and, once they do, the program is an incentive for them not to misbehave."
It may even be atonement for some.
"It's their (the inmates) opportunity to give a little something back to society," Edwards said. "Maybe if the inmates are here for taking a life, this is their opportunity to give one back to someone who might not be able to have one without a service dog."
The inmates who take care of the service dogs are visited every week by a representative from Canine Partners for Life, who makes sure the dogs are the proper weight, are eating well and that the dog's training is on track.
The recipients come from all walks of life and have a wide variety of physical disabilities including muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders and more, according to the organization's Web site.
"We are extremely fortunate that local veterinarians are willing to provide us with free care for these dogs," Marirosa Lamas, SCI Muncy superintendent, said. "Without their services, a significant financial burden would be placed on the prison and on Canine Partners for Life."
"If we call the vets today and say that one of the dogs has fleas, they would send us flea and tick remover," Edwards added. "It wouldn't be possible without the vets."
Edwards said that SCI Muncy really appreciates all the veterinarians' help, especially in these tough economic times.
SCI Muncy began the program in 2002, and inmates at the institution have trained 28 puppies during the past four years.
"This program provides valuable life and career skills while instilling a sense of responsibility, discipline and social awareness for the inmates involved and gives them an opportunity to give back to the community," Lamas said.
Other state prisons that work to train service dogs with Canine Partners for Life include Cambridge Springs, Albion and Smithfield. To learn more about Canine Partners for Life, visit www.k94life.org.