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RI Dog with Inmate Trainers

Featured Article

Retrieving Independence Gives Us Paws to Consider

Local Nonprofit Trains the Most Skillful Service Dogs Around

Article by William Harwood

Photography by Courtesy of Retrieving Independence

Originally published in Brentwood Lifestyle

What helpful skills can you learn in two years? Well, if you happen to be a service dog in training with Retrieving Independence, you can learn to get the mail, flush the toilet, do the laundry and put plastic dishes in the sink. (And, no, you can’t sign up your teenager for the program; it’s only for dogs.) Retrieving Independence is a Franklin-based nonprofit that breeds, trains and places service dogs with people in need of assistance, often with mobility, diabetic alert, seizure response or developmental issues. The range of skills Retrieving Independence dogs can learn is truly extraordinary. For example, with their keen sense of smell, these high-performing pooches can alert their people when their blood sugar is too high or too low. Or, if a pooch’s person is prone to seizures, the caregiving canine will roll that person over, lick his or her face until consciousness is regained and then press a button to dial 911. "Paws" to consider that!   

All this is accomplished through a two-year, five-phase training program involving volunteer breeders, puppy raisers and, through a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, prison inmates who perform a large portion of the actual training. The training builds upon the dogs’ love and trust of us humans and fulfills their needs, much like our own, to be useful, loved and praised. It is training that is always force-free and full of positive reinforcement. 

“Our training is all about positivity,” says Jessica Petty, the organization’s executive director.  

Retrieving Independence is a proud member of the Pet Professional Guild, an organization of pet industry professionals who understand that force-free training means no shock, no pain, no choke, no fear, no physical force and no compulsion-based methods. Along with the nonprofits’ proven matching process, the result is an effective partnership between a dog and a recipient in which both work together as a loving team.  

Mike Marzella, a war veteran and the director of development at Retrieving Independence, is himself a recipient of a service dog, a retriever named Liam. The two joined forces on Veteran’s Day last November and are now an inseparable team. To help Mike with the effects of PTSD, Liam has sensed that Mike does not like being surprised from behind and will position himself accordingly.  

As for why Retrieving Independence does its work, it’s all about love, dignity and change. The volunteers love on the dogs, and the dogs, in turn, provide purpose and dignity to their inmate trainers. And, of course, once graduated, the fully trained dogs provide love, companionship and life-changing service to the wonderful recipients of these incredible canines. For people living with disabilities, Retrieving Independence can significantly enhance their quality of life. Should you or a loved one be in need of your own service dog to perform particular tasks, don’t hesitate to ask. The good folks at Retrieving Independence will be thrilled to hear from you and discuss how they can help. 

  • RI Dog with Inmate Trainers
  • RI Drill Team at the Prison
  • RI Recipient
  • RI Recipient
  • RI Recipient
  • RI Recipient and Director of Development Mike Marzella and Liam, a golden retriever
  • RI Dog in Training
  • Photo Credit: Lauren Daughtery
  • Photo Credit: Lauren Daughtery
  • Photo Credit: Lauren Daughtery