The bond between humans and their pets is unlike any other. More referred to as the human-animal bond, this mutually beneficial relationship improves the physical and mental wellness of both the person and animal. In a 2022 study conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, researchers found that 87% of pet owners experienced mental or physical health benefits from the human-animal bond.
For Nashville nonprofit organization Retrieving Independence (RI), they hone in on this power of the human-animal bond, using service dogs to rehabilitate prison inmates and assist people living with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. “RI’s mission is to harness love and dignity to rehabilitate inmates and give people living with greater independence through the training and provision of service dogs,” explains Lauren Dougall, CEO of Retrieving Independence. “Our values of love, dignity, and change are at the heart of everything we do, and they apply universally.”
RI service dogs are trained to do anything from helping people move about easier to alerting others if their owner is prone to seizures and assisting those with mental and emotional needs like post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. The process for qualifying for an RI service dog begins when a person fills out a short application on the RI website. The information provided helps the RI team better understand an individual’s situation and needs. From there, they can determine if someone is a good fit for a service dog.
What truly makes Retrieving Independence unique is its partnership with the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Through this relationship, dogs are paired with male and female inmates across two facilities and are taught the skills they need to be successful service animals. “Our program is focused on positivity and offers our inmate trainers dignity through the skills they learn,” says Lauren. “[They learn] empathy through the companionship of the animal they’re bonding with during training as well as a sense of purpose of knowing the work they’re doing is ultimately benefiting people in need in the wider community.”
Not only are service dogs and their recipients benefiting from this program, but so are the inmates. One inmate shares his experience training an RI service animal: “I woke up this morning, and the first thing I see is a pair of eyes staring at me, needing and wanting my attention. I saw a soul that said, ‘I love you.’ Who would have ever thought a soul of silence could teach the human species to become more sensitive to the needs of others? He has taught me to be in tune with my heart, to be a listener, and to love the unlovable.”
About eight months into the 18-month training program, dogs are paired with their full-time owner so the inmate trainers can hone in on the skills that particular person needs for their day-to-day life and activities. Lauren says RI’s goal is to provide people experiencing disabilities with more independence, which can mean many different things — from the ability to live life more fully to gaining more confidence. “Some of our clients report feeling an increased sense of visibility in public [after receiving their service dog]where before they felt somewhat invisible,” Lauren adds.
Lauren admits it’s difficult to adequately express just how much RI service dogs are changing the lives of their owners, so she turns to Andrew, a recipient of an RI service dog, to recount his experience with his pup, Rex: “Rex has become more than my service dog, more than my friend, more than my partner. He has become part of me. This hit me when he got out of bed with me for about the 100th time last night. He goes where I go and does what I do. He is my nose but better, my legs but stronger. He is my heart, filled and complete. I love you, Rex.”
Lauren adds that it’s important not to skip over the impact RI service dogs have on the lives of the organization’s volunteers. This includes people who ensure the dogs get to demonstrate and practice the skills taught by inmate trainers outside the prison facilities on weekends. “In doing so, [volunteers] get to benefit from the companionship of the dog and find community with each other and an additional purpose,” Lauren explains. “There are many ways in which the general community and everyday people benefit from RI service dogs.”
Regarding selecting dogs for RI’s inmate training program, Lauren says Retrieving Independence works hard to choose and breed dogs suitable for service work. Using its internal breeding program, the organization works with dog breeds with calm temperaments and a cognitive ability to learn tasks, make good choices, and remain calm in public and distracting situations. These breeds tend to include golden retrievers, labradors, and Labradoodles.
Retrieving Independence also impacts the lives of the surrounding community, working to educate the public about service dogs and raise awareness about the misconceptions surrounding inmates and people living with disabilities. “Having a service dog can help [a person with disabilities], but even their presence means a great deal of education — what the laws are about service dogs, the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal, and how people interact with service dogs as working animals,” Lauren explains. “We want to do more as an organization to advocate for our clients and their service dogs so they have a better experience. That’s something that we’re going to be working on.”
When it comes to the future of Retrieving Independence, Lauren says the organization hopes to grow into more prison facilities, continue educating the public about service animals, become Assistance Dog International Certified, and perhaps start placing dogs in facilities to be therapy dogs. “Growth would allow us to place more dogs with more people,” adds Lauren. “The demand is currently higher than the supply, and it would be great for us to grow the program into more prison facilities and to place more dogs with more people.”
Retrieving Independence is also slated to host its inaugural fundraiser on Saturday, September 24, at its headquarters at the Honey Alexander Center. Named “Retrieving in the Round,” the event features musical performances from local songwriters. Tickets are not yet on sale, so follow Retrieving Independence on Instagram and Facebook for more details as they’re announced.
To learn more about Retrieving Independence and its mission, visit riservicedogs.org or call (615) 934-0444. All photography courtesy of RI volunteer Marie T. Lancaster.
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