One woman with a passion for dogs is changing - for the better - the lives of Washington State prison inmates, American war veterans, disabled children and disabled adults.
She does it with dogs, highly trained service dogs... and a high-tech link to prison.
Denise CoStanten founded Brigadoon Service Dogs, a nonprofit in Bellingham, WA., 15 years ago.
“I got my first dog in third grade and, as a member of the Lassie generation, I starting breeding and showing collies when I was 17.”
After a Master’ Certification and a decade of private work, Denise got serious about putting dogs to work for a cause. Her inspiration was her older brother. A promising young law student, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. “He was my hero,” she says, “I really looked up to him."
“When he came home he was a different person; shattered. He ended up homeless and on drugs, having lost his wife and child.” Denise and her husband, the late Leon CoStanten, himself a veteran, brought the brother home and began his rehabilitation. He is now well and happy and, of course, has his dog Archie for company. “He was always on my mind,” Denise muses, “He talks to his dog about the war and that’s safe for him. I always wondered if he had gotten a dog when he returned from Vietnam, would he have been able to avoid the fall?”
And so it began, a few dogs at a time. But the moment her website went live, thousands of requests from people poured in... people who were not blind but had multiple other needs, including PTSD, mobility problems, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, diabetes, autism, etc.
In 2011, the Commander of JBLM asked her to help the dogs that servicemen had adopted from local shelters and were calling “service dogs.” She arrived and trained the dogs for weeks and then made an offer: if a veteran needed a real service dog, they could apply to her nonprofit Brigadoon. At the same time, a warden in Olympia asked if she could bring a program to his prison. They had some shelter dogs, but he wanted training for his inmates.
She told the Department of Corrections she would need to know the dogs had adequate room, exercise, baths, a working room with a TV and DVD for training inmates. It all fell into place and the contract was signed.
Now she is working with four prisons and another is cued up for the program.
In a unique pilot program, Brigadoon has a video camera in the prison at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center so they can do live two-way trainings with the inmates. The Brigadoon trainer works with a real dog in Bellingham on live camera in their training room and the inmates are in the prison working with their dogs, asking questions, practicing, in real time. This live remote unit may be the first of its kind in the country.
Now Denise CoStanten would like to create a certification program in Washington State for inmates who would like to work in this profession upon their release.
Why have so many prisons found this program useful? They report that inmates find a purpose and companionship in dog training. One inmate spoke at a recent Brigadoon fundraiser saying that through this program he was able to stop taking all his anxiety medication. She enjoys working with the military veteran inmates because they seem able to work in a team, apply the discipline needed to care for dogs and maintain complete journals of the training and care of the dogs. They also are committed to helping other vets. “The dogs’ needs come first for me, of course, I need to make sure they are properly handled.” But, the benefit to the inmates is also important to her:
“I am a humanitarian, but I do my work through dogs.”
After a puppy-raiser has the dog for 8 months, then an inmate gets the dog for 8 months, then Brigadoon takes the dog for advanced service training. The training is very specific to the needs of the person applying.
“My favorite example is Mary,” she explains. “Mary was a little 4 year old Down Syndrome child who refused to hold hands with her parents and would run off. So her family was not able to leave home. We tried several dogs until we found Sable who just wanted to be with Mary constantly. We trained her to find Mary, if lost, but it doesn’t matter anymore because Mary won’t leave Sable’s side. Now the family feels their daughter is protected.
Training a dog for a child is hardest because you have to train the whole family. They all have to be on board.”
Right now there are eight veterans and 11 children on Brigadoon’s waiting list. “The problem is a shortage of dogs, really,” she admits. Having taken a few years to take care of her husband’s illness and subsequent death, Denise says she understandably got behind. But they have puppies on the way and have reached out to a service dog training cooperative for more.
It takes about two years and $30-thousand dollars to fully train a service dog. Applicants supply some of the funding and the rest comes from donors. The Brigadoon staff and volunteers work to keep up with demand and the energetic pace of their founder.
CoStanten’s own standard poodle, Sophie, is usually near her side and ready to give her unique hug to Brigadoon volunteer Kristen Parsons. Denise CoStanten barely has time for an interview on a summer day when there are so many dogs and people waiting for her attention. She has short term projects and long term planning to do.
“We have to get young people to learn and continue this work,” she says... and then she sneezes. And coughs and chokes up.
“Oh yeah, I’m allergic to dogs!”