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FISHERS — Time spent in prison can stunt any future employment for Hoosier inmates. There is a program that is helping offenders secure a job once they re-enter society, with the help of four-legged friends.
Ashley Bowers is a certified pet trainer. However, Bowers was not always a dog whisperer, she spent five years in prison for armed robberies.
"When I was incarcerated I was just floating around doing nothing, being pretty useless," Bowers said. "Really no aspirations to do any better."
That was until Bowers learned about ICAN, the Indiana Canine Assistant Network. ICAN is a service dog training program, that trains inmates to teach dogs various skills.
LEARN MORE | Indiana Canine Assistant Network
"I had no experience but as time went by, my skills started to advance," Bowers said. "I started teaching more advanced behaviors like brace, how to turn on lights, how to open doors, how to teach a dog to push a drawer shut, how to kind of get on top of somebody and put some pressure on them and to stabilize them."
The dogs in the prisons are learning to be fully trained service dogs through their ICAN handlers. While the dogs are getting the necessary training, the ICAN program is also teaching inmates the skills they need to re-enter society successfully.
"We teach them how to interview, we teach them how to write resumes, so there is a lot of things that go, we bring outside people to teach other stuff too," Sean Diamond, ICAN director of training, said.
Diamond has been with ICAN for 15 years, working one-on-one with inmate handlers. For Diamond, a former inmate himself, ICAN is so much more than getting dogs trained.
"The individuals that are in prison are still human beings and a lot of them are going to get out," Diamond said. "Our recidivism rate in Indiana is around 39%, for ICAN, for people who have been in ICAN a year or more, it's around 17%. Now granted I don't hire people who have a lot of conduct, but what we do is provide skills for individuals so they are not living off welfare, they are not having to turn back to crime, or come back to prison, to set them up for success as much as we can whether it is through jobs or building up their self esteem, giving them skills they need to go in different directions."
After 3,600 hours of training and curriculum studies, the ICAN handlers complete an apprenticeship and receive a Department of Labor certificate in service dog training and pet grooming. This provides the inmates professional skills upon release.
"As soon as I got out, within a month of moving to Indianapolis, I had a a job and I was working in Greenwood at PetSmart," Bowers said.
Bowers later took the pet training job at Paws & Play Dog Resort and Training Center in Fishers. It was while serving time at the Indiana Women's Prison and working with ICAN, that Bowers got the opportunity to get started on what would be her future career path.
"Without ICAN, I would have came out a felon, with these pretty big felonies, and nobody was going to be willing to hire me," Bowers said. "If it wasn't for my family and ICAN, who knows what I would have done."
ICAN gave this former criminal, something to be passionate about.
"I just want to become the best trainer that I can, I want to have the most education that I can, I want to get every certification that is possible," Bowers said. "I want to help, I want to keep dogs out of shelters, I want to keep people educated on how to care for the dog they already have. I want to keep this huge rotating circle of dogs from coming into shelters, from becoming strays, from getting euthanized. It's a huge deal."
Inmates must apply for the ICAN program and meet certain qualifications, including having a GED and have a good conduct record while behind bars.
ICAN prepares offenders to successfully reintegrate with their family as well. ICAN's training model for service dogs is based on positive reinforcement. This is the same method that is used for teaching effective parenting and interpersonal skills.