Still, dogs are more than just companions. They can be the eyes for those who can't see, lead those who can't walk and calm people suffering from conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Where do these service dogs get their start? For some, it all begins behind prison walls...
At the Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York, more than 1,600 men convicted of abuse, robbery and murder are serving their time. "I've been incarcerated for robbery in the first degree," an inmate named Michael says. "I really had no regards for other people. It was always me, me, me, me."
Now, a groundbreaking program called Puppies Behind Bars is transforming these offenders. Inmates are given 8-week-old puppies and taught to train them to become service dogs for the disabled, including wounded soldiers. The puppies and prisoners are together 24 hours a day. The puppies sleep in crates in the inmates' cells.
In return, the puppies give the prisoners something many of them have never experienced before—unconditional love. "I'm going to make my family and those around me proud of me again. Joining this program, it helped me to give myself a sense of pride again. To know that by nurturing and raising these dogs to their fullest potential, that I could give back."
Animal lover and five-time Oscar® nominee Glenn Close first learned about Puppies Behind Bars when she volunteered to help inmates at the women's prison in her town. She was so moved by the impact of the program that she called The Oprah Show herself to share this story.
"We know the bond that can be created between humans and animals. And there is common knowledge that it's a healing quality," she says. "The bond that's created between inmates—who never knew love, never knew responsibility, have only been told that they're worthless—and the bond that they then train their dogs to establish with these wounded returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is changing their lives."
Roberto is an inmate whose life has been changed by the program. Convicted of second-degree murder, Roberto has been in prison since he was 17. "I am now 33 years old. I wish I could turn back the hands of time for the hurt and pain that I've caused so many people, especially my victim's family," he says.
Roberto was chosen for Puppies Behind Bars and immediately bonded with his yellow lab, Frankie. "From the moment I got her, it was amazing," he says. "There was some beautiful moments in here that I shared with my puppy."
Eventually, Frankie had to move on—and Roberto had to say goodbye. "The first night I was without Frankie, I have to say it was a long night," he says. "It was hard for me to realize that the next morning I was going to wake up and not actually feed her that morning."
Since leaving Roberto, Frankie has become a lifeline for Sgt. Allen Hill, who suffers from traumatic brain injury and severe combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder after he was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Frankie helps Sgt. Hill overcome his paralyzing, violent flashbacks by kissing his face.
After a few months together, Sgt. Hill and Frankie return to Fishkill to meet Roberto. When Frankie sees Roberto, she takes off running. "She looks beautiful," Roberto says.
Sgt. Hill thanks Roberto for all that he's done. "Frankie has been there for me. She's been my rock when I've needed her to help me out with a flashback or a nightmare. I can do things that for a year and a half I couldn't do," Sgt. Hill says.
Roberto is moved. "This is an overwhelming feeling, and to see you is breathtaking," he says. "And to see what Frankie had done in your life."
Now paroled, Roberto is expected to be released from prison this summer, but what he learned from Puppies Behind Bars will stay with him forever. "Being able to be involved in the puppy program has taught me to be a responsible person," he says. "It has taught me patience."
Sgt. Hill, his wife, Gina, say Frankie has changed their lives. "The biggest difference that Frankie has made in my life was, one, she allowed me the opportunity to go back to church," he says. "And, two, she's helping me gain my independence back so I'm not so reliant on Gina and other family members."
Gina says she's starting to see her husband's playful, energetic side come through once again. "We're starting to see that side of him again that we haven't seen in the year and a half he's been home from Iraq," she says. "Frankie has brought my sons their daddy home. She has lit the light back in him that had been so dark."
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Puppies Behind Bars is the lesson of love each inmate learns. Jesse, another prisoner at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, is currently training Joy, his third dog. "She brought forth in me the ability to love again. It had been so dormant in me for so long because of the cold place that I'm in," he says. "I didn't know that I could love again, and we all get to see how greatly these dogs affect the lives of the people that they touch."