With graying hair and a bushy moustache that spreads across his upper lip, Grady Meredith speaks with an air of confidence that hints at years of life experience. He stands at about five feet six and has a muscular stature that looms over Lucy, the Labrador mix that sits at his feet. He walks the two-year-old service dog through a series of training techniques in the middle of a bare, bunker-like room made of sheets of metal and concrete floors. One at a time, he drops an assortment of items: a pack of almonds, a toothbrush, keys, all of which Lucy eagerly bends down to pick up and returns gently to Meredith’s open palm.

Next, he places a bright red Staples “Easy” button on one of the metal walls. With one word”nose”he commands Lucy to push the button. Tail wagging, Lucy trots over and puts her nose to the plastic. “That was easy,” chirps the device. Watching Lucy effortlessly complete each task feels like witnessing a circus act; the tricks, which seem simple enough, surprise and fascinate.

But while the presence of more than a dozen dogs lightens the bleak room’s atmosphere, the fact that this is all taking place inside a medium-security prison is hard to ignore.

At forty-six years old, Meredith has been locked up for more than At forty-six years old, Meredith has been locked up for more than

At forty-six years old, Meredith has been locked up for more than half his life. He’s currently serving a life sentence at Franklin Correctional Center in Bunn, a small town about thirty miles east of Raleigh. The prison holds more than four hundred prisoners who have been convicted of an array of offenses, from drug possession to murder. Meredith was convicted of second-degree murder. He grew up in a Gaston County mill village, a ghost of the once-booming textile industry. His best childhood memories are of the time he spent working with his uncles teaching dogs retrieval work.

“We trained bird dogs like retrievers and black labs and competed them in retrieval competitions,” Meredith says. “Before I came to prison, I always had a dog.”

Meredith now works with Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Paws, a Carrboro nonprofit that trains puppies to become service dogs for those who are differently abled. The group partnered with the prison in late 2014 in a program called At Both Ends of the Leash, which aims to increase the number of service dogs in the Triangle; it now employs eighteen prisoners as dog trainers.

“Training service dogs is labor intensive, and it’s hard to find people who can commit to doing it for a long period of time,” says Deb Cunningham, cofounder and director of EENP. “It takes thousands of hours to train dogs, and volunteers don’t have as much time.”

EENP surely benefits from the work of these prisoners, but the inmates themselves also find the work rewarding. It’s a break from the drudgery and tedium of life behind bars, as well as a source of much-needed stimulation. The program also offers trainees valuable experience that may be beneficial outside the prison walls. Cunningham says the dogs teach the prisoners patience, compassion, and empathy.

The use of prisoners as dog trainers dates back the eighties, when Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun, started a dog-training program in a Washington state prisonthe first of its kind. Since then, many programs, including At Both Ends of the Leash, or ABEL, have sprung up around the country.

Though these programs have proven popular, there hasn’t been a lot of hard research into their efficacy; the studies that do exist suggest that dog-training partnerships have a positive effect on prisoners.

A 2007 study published in the Federal Probation journal, for instance, showed a decrease in the rates of depression and aggression among inmates in Indiana. According to the study, these changes could be attributed to the prisoners’ assuming increased responsibility in caring for the dogs and the resulting trust that prison staff developed toward the inmates. Studies have also shown that programs like the one at Franklin can help reduce recidivism rates. A 2013 study of a Philadelphia prison showed that while 41 percent of all prisoners were rearrested within a year of release, only 14 percent of prisoners involved in canine programs were.

“You can see a difference in the guys when you put a leash in their hands,” Meredith says. “They have responsibility, and it teaches them self-awareness. At some point, it starts to psychologically make a difference.”


The idea for the partnership between EENP and Franklin began almost two years ago. It took off quickly.

“We approached the N.C. Department of Public Safety, and they showed interest in the program,” Cunningham says. “After that, we found Franklin and then signed the contract in late 2014.”

The contract states that EENP pays for the dogs, dog food, supplies, vet care, training, and transportation, while Franklin provides the space, recruits trainers, and ensures that the program gets the facilities it needs. Through this partnership, EENP will be able to place more dogs with people in need, and Franklin inmates will have the opportunity to provide a community service and learn a marketable skill.

This program is one of twenty prison partnerships in the state, collectively referred to as A New Leash on Life, which began operating in 2004. Most programs work to make dogs ready for regular companionship as pets, but as a long-term service-dog-training program that lasts for eighteen months, compared with standard eight-to-twelve-week programs, the EENP partnership is unique.

Cunningham says she decided to produce service dogs, rather than house dogs, after spending time on a volunteer search-and-rescue team with her dog Finner, an experience that motivated her to find other ways to draw upon dogs’ innate skills.

“Working with Finner was amazing,” she says. “He could use his nose to locate a person in several hundred acres of woods very quickly. Finner’s unique ability to do something I couldn’t forged a special relationship. I wanted to find more ways to harness this amazing relationship.”

Cunningham now uses her expertise to bring this experience to others. But it’s no easy ride for those who see hope in the program. There’s an exhaustive application and interview process, and inmates with a history of sex-related crimes or animal cruelty are immediately rejected.

It’s up to the state Department of Public Safety as to who gets to take part in the program. Prisoners who are selected are paired with a six-month-old Labrador or golden retriever, which they train for the next year and a half. The only exception is a one-week furlough for the pups, who are briefly returned to society so they don’t forget what life is like outside of prison. Other than that, dogs and trainers eat together, sleep together, and play together every day, 24-7, until the dogs are ready to graduate.

“These guys are full-time professional volunteers,” said Maria Ikenberry, cofounder and director of EENP. “They are never truly off duty.”

The partnership started with fewer than a dozen dogs and trainers. It now has eighteen service dogs in training, each with an assigned prisoner-trainer.

Meredith is one of them. After landing behind bars at twenty-three, Meredith struggled to find meaning. In 2005, when the prison where he was incarcerated started a pilot program for A New Leash On Life, he saw a chance to return to the only thing he ever loved.

“I’m a dog trainer. There’s no other way to put it,” Meredith says.

Meredith bounced from prison to prison and eventually landed in Franklin, but he continued to work with dogs and guide new trainers.

“This is one of the best programs there is,” says Meredith. “It’s purpose-driven, and there’s more freedom than some of the other programs. I didn’t have the best childhood growing up, but I’ve had a lot of support through programs like these over the years.”

Alden Rainey is another inmate who says he’s benefited from the program. Rainey, twenty-nine, is quiet and reserved but expressive and loving with his training dog, Ike. Having landed in prison for armed robbery and weapon possession, he says working with dogs is a new experience for him.

“I’ve always quit things my whole life, but I knew I couldn’t quit this,” Rainey says. “I wanted to better myself.”

Noting the daily struggles of living in prison, Rainey says having a dog helps alleviate a number of stressors. “You have to let a lot of things go,” says Rainey. “Training dogs is really about working with people, because through helping dogs, it helps you as a person.”

Rainey has served four years and has eighteen months left on his sentence, and he would like to work with dogs when he gets out. “Hopefully it’ll open doors for me,” he says.

This idea is supported by a 2006 national survey of different prison-based animal programs, which showed that about 33 percent of programs reported knowledge of former inmates who left prison and went on to work with animals. Meredith says some men who worked in the Craven program have since gone on to work with dogs outside of prison.

“It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s like a real job,” says Cunningham. “But for some, this is exactly what they want to be doing.”

Keith Acree, a DPS spokesman, says that he also knows of some prisoners who previously worked in A New Leash on Life programs who are now working with animals on the outside, though he declined to provide specifics, citing the need for confidentiality.

This sort of anecdotal evidence has bolstered programs like ABEL all over the country. The 2006 survey, conducted by sociologist Gennifer Furst, a professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey, found that thirty-six states across the country run programs similar to the one at Franklin. While this survey included all animal-based programs, including those using livestock and even cats, dogs were the primary training animal, both for companionship and service training.

According to Furst, these types of programs have proliferated in the last ten yearsperhaps one in every state now and several overseas as well. And while current funding for prison research is focused primarily on terrorism and policing, Furst believes these programs will continue to exist as long as there is the need for them.

“The equation is there,” says Furst. “With the recent wars, there is an increase in veterans who need support, there are homeless animals, and we have the largest prison complex in the world. These programs are under-studied but continue to be popular.”


In June, EENP held its inaugural graduation for the dogs that passed the first round of training. The usually bleak training room at Franklin had long tables covered by yellow tablecloths, and rows of plastic chairs were set up at the front of the room. The atmosphere was lively, energized by the bustle of dogs, trainers, prison staff, volunteers, and the clients who were there to receive the dogs.

Both Rainey and Meredith sat with their trainees, lovingly giving them belly rubs and casually checking the inside of their ears. That afternoon would be the last time they would be together; it was graduation day for both pooches.

The ceremony began with words from the superintendent of Franklin, Timothy McKoy. Reflecting on the program’s first year and a half of existence, McKoy admitted that the initiative’s success was never guaranteed. “We were a little shaky about this program when we first started,” McKoy said. “We didn’t know how it was gonna go, but after eighteen months, I can say that it’s truly been a blessing.”

Two clients sat in the audience.

One of them, Hannah Michels, is a twenty-one-year-old born with a congenital form of myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes mobility impairment. Michels had been waiting almost two years for a service dog, which isn’t unusual; her wait time is close to the national average, due to an imbalance of supply and demand.

“I think it’s wonderful that they’re using inmates to train the dogs,” Michels said. “I cannot wait to get my dog to keep me company and keep me safe.”

For Michels, who renamed the dog she was given Pennie, having a service canine is life-changing. Her dog, she says, will help her with day-to-day tasks including retrieving her phone, moving her wheelchair to her, seeking help when Michels experiences trouble breathing, and picking up anything Michels drops.

Nearby, Amanda Weekley stood hunched over a walker, speaking to volunteers; she was also scheduled to receive one of the dogs. Weekley, thirty-four, has ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that causes vertebrae to fuse together. She also suffers from arthritis, neuropathy, and type II diabetes; she’s been on disability for seven years.

Weekley says her two kids help her around the house, but having a service dog will help her become a mother againand let her children be children.

“I lose my balance and fall sometimes,” Weekley said. “A service dog can go get help.”

Meredith was stoic when it came time to give Lucy away, but Lucy seemed to understand what was happening. With her big brown eyes, she turned to gaze up at her trainer and friend one last time before being handed off to her new owner.

Cunningham says she aims to place at least fifteen dogs per year. For that to happen, she needs at least forty dogs in the program, because only half of the dogs end up graduating. Right now, the program is training seventeen dogs.

Regardless, she thinks the future bodes well. In September, EENP took on its first work release trainer, who gets paid to work in the EENP office during the day. She also hopes to open more ABEL programs in two to three more prisons in the state.

While the immediate goal may be to train as many service dogs as possible, for inmates like Meredith and Rainey, the program is about more than just about creating service dogs. It’s about creating humanity.

“Dogs bridge the gap between people,” Meredith says. “They become the common denominator, whether it’s racial, social, or economic differences. The support of these programs is important. They’re needed.”