How We Train

Our Belief in Positive Reinforcement

In over a decade, our proven training philosophy has successfully placed close to 150 service dogs with clients in need. Our training program has helped set the foundation for countless lives positively impacted by the independence, confidence, and quality of life our service dogs provide. We believe that a cornerstone for our success is exclusive positive reinforcement training that primarily takes place inside of Indiana correctional facilities.

Quite simply, we believe in the power of positive reinforcement!  All of our dogs are rewarded for what they do correctly. We don’t correct them for what they do wrong. We strive to build a partnership between the handlers and the dog. This philosophy has helped our service dogs remain engaged throughout their training process, eager to learn, and comfortable taking direction from a diverse group of people throughout their service! This philosophy has also helped our inmate handlers acquire better parenting skills when released from prison. We create relationships between dogs and handlers based on respect, not power.

When the Training Begins

Once an ICAN pup is born, his or her training begins.

  1. After the whelping, at three weeks, the pups and their mother are transferred to the Indiana Women’s Prison.  Here the focus is care, early neuro-muscular development, and developing eagerness to learn. It is also about making sure mama and her pups are given the proper nutrition and exercise.
  2. From 8 to 16 weeks, the pups will be assigned to live with an ICAN furlough volunteer, who has been trained as a Puppy Starter. Here they will begin the early stages of socialization and being in various environments and settings.
  3. At 16 weeks, the pups go to one of our Indiana training facilities, where the handlers begin to train them on Level 1 skills.
  4. Every six weeks the dog will come out of the prison for three weeks and live in the community with an ICAN furlough volunteer. While on furlough, it is the responsibility of the furlough volunteer to care for and socialize the pup to the outside world in their home and work environment as well as a shopping mall, grocery store, park, church, etc.

To learn more about the program in our correctional facilities, please visit Training Facilities.

Prison Rotations

Dogs are transferred between prisons based on the level of training of the inmate handler. Generally, pups start at the facility that has the shortest sentences or where the handlers are less experienced. Currently, pups start at one of the Pendleton’s Men’s Prisons and are there from 4 to 18 months. Here they learn the foundation skills (Level 1 and 2) for their future task skills of an assistance dog (such as sit, down, touch, under, tug, lap, visit, drop, etc.)

The Indiana Women’s Prison is the facility where the dogs are taught the most advanced tasks and client-specific skills. Dogs are taught skills such as opening doors/drawers, retrieving dropped items, providing balance, operating lights, alerting to low blood sugar, finding help, retrieving an item out of a cabinet or refrigerator, interrupting a repetitive motion of a child with autism or the panic attack of a veteran with PTSD.  To learn more about the types of skills our dogs are taught, please visit Types of Skills Dogs Learn.

ICAN Furlough Volunteer Program

As our dogs advance through various levels of comprehensive training inside the correctional facilities we also want our dogs to be well-adjusted to a life of serving each client for a specific purpose.  Our Volunteer Furlough Training Program is a critical component that helps make this happen.

The role of the ICAN furlough volunteer is to practice skills the dogs are learning in the facilities from the inmate handlers. This means that volunteers are not introducing the dogs to new skills. The value of this practice is to help the dogs learn to follow cues (commands) in different settings and with different types and levels of distractions.

If you’re interested in learning more about our furlough training program, visit ICAN’s Furlough Volunteer Program.