Inmates and officers work together in 'Puppies Behind Bars' program to help at-risk law enforcement

BEDFORD HILLS, Westchester County (WABC) -- Cops, canines, and inmates.

At the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Northern Westchester County, they're all working together in a special program designed to help at-risk officers who might be considering suicide.

"I have 13 years on the job with the NYPD and it will be the most rewarding thing that I have done or will be able to do for other officers," said Det. Efrain Hernandez, NYPD. "It's definitely giving back to them something that they normally would not have had."

"Puppies Behind Bars" is now in its 24th year. The program trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for first responders.

Those inmates in turn train police officers who become the dog's handlers.

The NYPD has four officers here for two-weeks of training.

"Coming in here I was a pet owner for pretty much my entire life and thinking that I know a little bit about dogs. I learned that I know nothing about it," said Sgt. Anthony Manza, NYPD.

Sergeant Manza, his three colleagues, and their dogs, will stand ready to respond to any officer suffering mental crises, anguish, and thoughts of suicide. All of them are keenly aware their intervention can save the life of a brother or sister in blue.

"It is really easy to go into a room, close the door and start crying into the fur of a dog. And especially as a cop, it's not so easy to do that with a human being," said Gloria Gilbert Stoga, "Puppies Behind Bars."

Here's an ancillary benefit of this program, consider the irony of what's happening here: You have law enforcement officers coming to a maximum security prison to take orders from inmates. That builds respect on both sides.



"We watch the news. We see watch what's going on and I'm sure it's very hard for them. It is a touching feeling to know our dogs can help them through it," said Sarah Buswell, an inmate trainer.

The program's benefits are many: a sense of value for the inmates, a profound level of reward for the handlers, and lifesaving comfort for officers enduring the challenges of being one of New York's Finest.

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Jose Zelaya uses a wheelchair due to Spinal Muscular Atrophy, but his lifelong dream is to be a police officer.



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