Before she could collect shell casings at the scene of a south metro officer-involved shooting this spring, Taylor first had to get out of prison.
The latest bomb-sniffing black Labrador to join the local force of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has a résumé unlike that of any of her human counterparts: She was reared behind the walls of a New Jersey women’s correctional facility.
The two-year-old pup now shares a home with her predecessor and their veteran agent handler, her hyper personality a marked contrast with the mild-mannered explosives detection canine she replaced.
“They say don’t compare your second dog to your first dog,” said Nic Garlie, an 18-year agent who has served as the St. Paul ATF office’s resident canine handler for four years.
But Garlie wasn’t blindsided by the change of pace when he took charge of Taylor in April. Leafing through a journal kept by Taylor’s inmate “puppy raiser,” Garlie gained both a glimpse of his new dog’s personality and an appreciation for the program responsible for her upbringing.
Taylor is one of about 400 bomb-sniffing dogs to emerge from Puppies Behind Bars, a program that allows a select group of New York and New Jersey inmates to help raise dogs that will go on to work for agencies like the ATF or become service animals for veterans and first responders.
Reporting to the prison at just eight weeks old, Taylor spent nearly seven months with Neville, an inmate whose last name or criminal conviction was not noted in the journal given to Garlie. Inmates help teach the dogs commands and must keep them active while staying together around the clock for most of the week. Another set of volunteers takes the dogs on weekends to acclimate them to the sounds and smells of the outside world.
Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the program’s founder, said Puppies Behind Bars came from her love of dogs but also a belief in second chances. Suddenly, she said, inmates become responsible for a life other than their own and get a chance to contribute to society even if it will be a while before they return to it themselves.
“They really feel like part of them leaves prison when the dog succeeds and goes on to work,” Stoga said.
A new pathway
Though no one could have known at the time, when Neville first received her “12 pounds of fluff and energy” as noted in her journal in September 2016, she would be grooming a pup whose service would later be needed in Minnesota to fill an unexpected early retirement.
Brock, Garlie’s first ATF canine, retired this year at six years old — about four years earlier than usual — after developing a sensitivity to noise in the field. His ATF tenure included discovering evidence during the 2012 manhunt of a Pennsylvania extremist who executed a state trooper, along with finding shell casings after the crossfire killing of beloved Minneapolis grandmother Birdell Beeks. He also discovered crucial evidence needed to convict a northern Minnesota man who built pipe bombs and wrote about violent rebellion.
In 2016, Taylor first opened up a new pathway for a prisoner who had largely been on her own for more than 12 years. Neville’s journal entries, jotted down on pages dotted with cartoon stickers, begin with a checklist of items and tasks needed to “puppy proof” her quarters. They also document a journey from her own unease over whether she could adequately show affection to reflecting on what it meant to be sending Taylor out into the world.
“It is a wonderful nervous energy to think while I am locked in this world, I can still be a service to someone,” Neville wrote.
Taylor was at Neville’s side for occasions previously spent alone for the past decade: the anniversary of losing a good friend on Sept. 11, and the winter holiday season.
“The sense of loneliness is far less pronounced this year,” she wrote of waking up to Taylor’s eagerness to see her on Christmas morning.
By the time Neville learned the following spring that Taylor would formally be trained to be a bomb-sniffing dog, she wrote that the dog had “opened up feelings that have been dormant for awhile.” Then 40 pounds heavier than when she entered the prison as a pup, Taylor’s penchant for exploring suited her well for explosives detection, Neville wrote.
When time allows, Garlie brings Brock out with him on his daily training sessions with Taylor. On other days, it’s just Garlie and Taylor in the field with Brock waiting back home.
Garlie took Taylor to New York last month to let a group of prisoners in Puppies Behind Bars get a look at what a finished dog looks like and to field questions about how they can best prepare the dogs for high-stakes detective work.
Garlie said he urged the inmates to find ways to get their puppies outside of their comfort zones. Some were already using the prison’s fitness center to train the dogs to keep their balance on unstable surfaces, something Garlie agreed would be needed one day.
But he also made a pitch for thorough journaling, citing Neville’s work and how it allowed him to understand her imprint on Taylor.
“It gives me a sense of what you guys put into the dog and how meaningful it is to you,” he said.