Programme to train canines for the Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust at women’s prison brings rewards for all

A well-trained dog is a beautiful sight, don't you think? In some parts of Auckland, it's a rarer sight than a unicorn but at Auckland Women's Prison at Wiri, they've got eight.

I met six of them - Keaton, Franklin, JR, Remy, Pilot and Parker - one sunny afternoon last week as their handlers worked with trainer Natalie Ramm. Two, Domino and Jenga, were at the vet, one for jabs and the other because a bigger (presumably much bigger) dog had stood on his foot.

Getting into a prison is not straightforward, but the folk at Corrections were very obliging about accommodating my request to see these dogs and their handlers, all of whom are prisoners. They're proud - and justifiably so - of a programme that has offenders learning how to teach basic obedience skills to dogs for the Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust.

It would be stretching things to describe the environment inside the prison walls as attractive, but as prison officer Daisy Fautanuvasa ushered me through the electronic gate, I was struck by the lack of forbidding austerity. The beehive mound of the volcanic cone Matukutureia was plainly visible beyond the walls.

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Except for the lack of trees, the place looked much like a school campus and the handlers took their dogs out on to a wide expanse of lush grass for the Herald photographer.

Impressively, the prisoners were dressed in attractive, casual clothes: floral-patterned gumboots here, a colourful top there. I spoke to one for several minutes before realising that she was not one of the trust's trainers.

Natalie Ramm, who's in charge of proceedings, is someone you'd pick as a doggy sort: her bearing and voice suggest an authority that would carry across a couple of King Country valleys. But in fact she was a graphic designer for television before the training of mobility dogs started here 10 years ago and she knew she'd found her calling.

In a classroom near the independent living units the women and their dogs call home, I watched as Ramm worked with the women, consolidating the dogs' grasp of basic commands: stay, sit, down, leave it, release. They practised walking away from the dog as it waited; they walked their dogs past distractions, which the dogs are trained to ignore.

"I'm seeing a lot of improvement since last time," said Ramm.

The cute little vests they wear are not for appearances' sake.

When the jacket's on, a dog is working and even scratching an itch is verboten; when the jacket comes off, says Ramm, "the dog's a dog again".

Various blends of retriever and Labrador, the dogs were alert and attentive as they stuck to their tasks - although five-month old Remy will be losing his attention-seeking bark over the next few months presumably.

Ramm was unsurprised when I told her I had heard of guide dogs for the blind but mobility dogs were new to me, and I wondered what exactly they did.

"The clients are all people with some level of physical disability," she explained, "and the dogs are are an extension of their arms and legs. It can be as simple as not needing to ask someone to pick something up that they drop.

"If they need something carried, or for something to be accessed that is inaccessible to them. Some pedestrian crossing buttons are on kerbs that a wheelchair can't get close to. Some lift-call buttons are out of reach.

"A dog can get the phone if they're in trouble which gives them more independence.

"A dog can load and unload the washing machine and dryer or even take your shoes and socks off on a hot day so you don't have to wait for someone to come home to do it."

The prisoner-handlers have wire kennels in their rooms and look after their dogs the whole time, although they do some training with prisoners at Springhill in the north Waikato and puppy trainers in the community.

Plainly it's a programme that has benefits not just for woman's best friend but for the women, too. One prisoner who spoke to me said that the training was a rewarding part of her sentence.

"The dog will be going out to someone who needs him," she said, "and it feels like you are giving something back."

And what is the reward for you, I asked her. She looked at me as though I was simple.

"You've got a dog, man," she said. "You're in prison and you've got a dog."

For more information
mobilitydogs.co.nz