At Both Ends of the Leash (ABEL)
EENP assistance dogs enter training in our prison partnership when they are about six months old. We named this program At Both Ends of the Leash (ABEL) because we believe that learning and service happen at both ends of the leash. The ABEL program is focused on producing skilled assistance dogs that will improve the lives of EENP clients – and ABEL gives the inmate-trainers the opportunity to improve their own lives as well.
Inmates in the ABEL program learn to train dogs at a professional level. Trainers are responsible for teaching advanced service-dog tasks. However, the ABEL curriculum focuses heavily on the personal development needed to be part of a professional team. This includes planning, reflection, and evaluation as well as virtually constant practice of what the trainers are learning — from dog training to conflict resolution.
Trainers make an initial commitment of 18 months to the ABEL program. Over that time, they learn to work together as a team through a variety of challenges and are able to see the tangible difference they make in EENP clients’ lives.
In 2016, EENP expanded our commitment to the ABEL program by starting a work-release program where inmate-trainers join EENP as paid staff members while they are still incarcerated. They continue to train our service dogs, but do so in the community rather than inside prison. This selective program provides further opportunity to ABEL trainers who have completed their initial 18-month commitment and have been promoted by the prison system to minimum-security custody. In the work-release program, they are able to refine their professional skills and create positive relationships within the community, which helps them transition successfully into life after incarceration.
ABEL trainers say they are in prison because they were focused on helping themselves at the expense of others. ABEL gives them a chance to help someone else in a profound way.
The dedicated support of EENP staff, volunteers, and donors demonstrates to the trainers that people care about them, are invested in their success, and value them for the good they are accomplishing now rather than judging them for the mistakes they made in the past. That opens a space for ABEL trainers to feel worthy of that investment and helps them change their self-image from “I hurt people” to “I help people.”