Break out the tissues! Friday’s Oprah Winfrey Show is sure to make any animal lover bawl. Actress Glenn Close will talk with Oprah about an organization that’s close to her heart: Puppies Behind Bars. It’s a New York-based group that takes dogs to prisons, where they are trained by inmates to be service dogs. Through the organization’s new initiative, Dog Tags, some of these dogs are later given to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury.
On Friday’s episode, Close and the Oprah crew visit a New York prison to film the reunion between Sgt. Allen Hill and inmate Roberto Rodriguez, who trained the veteran’s dog Frankie. It’s an emotional segment, one that Close says Oprah was very moved by. The actress spoke with PEOPLE Pets about the program and about the pups in her life, Bill and Jake.
How did you find out about Puppies Behind Bars?
Well, I have a home in Bedford Hills [N.Y.], where a high-security correctional facility is and that’s where Puppies Behind Bars was started by Gloria Gilbert-Stoga. I at one point was going into that prison quite a bit. I first was doing research for a movie about foster care and I went in with [writer-director] Eve Ensler to do research for a possible movie. So I knew of Puppies Behind Bars.
Then I heard from Gloria that they had started a program [in 2006] called Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us. And that the first dog, Pax, had gone to Bill Campbell, who is out in Seattle and suffering from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] and TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury]. I interviewed Bill [for my blog, Lively Licks] and we got to be friends. And then one thing led to another, Bill came east and he went into Bedford to meet the inmate who had trained his dog who had literally brought him back into life. And so for Oprah we got another vet who has a little yellow lab called Frankie and took him back into Fishkill prison to meet the inmate who had trained Frankie. These dogs make a huge difference – they represent more therapy for these guys than the other therapies that exist.
Why did you feel compelled to get involved?
For me it’s a no-brainer – I grew up surrounded by dogs. I know what they do, the kind of quality and love that they bring into your life. So to be able to support something that is actually helping the 330,000 returning vets who suffer from PTSD is something I think is very significant and important.
What will we see on Friday’s Oprah episode?
We took the Oprah crew into the Fishkill Correctional Facility and filmed the reunion between Sgt. Allen Hill and Roberto Rodriguez, who trained Frankie. And Roberto, he first went to prison when he was 17. He’s now in his 30s. It’s just an incredibly powerful and emotional story. You meet all the inmates that are in the Puppies Behind Bars programs right now, you see them training their dogs and they talk about why they’re in prison and what the program means to them.
What happened behind the scenes?
It was really great because I knew that going into a prison changes your life. None of the Oprah crew had ever been in a prison. Not only to go into a prison but to go into a prison and see this incredibly emotional dynamic. They were blown away by it. They really were impressed and moved. That made me happy. Then when I went up to Chicago to actually be on the show, Oprah was really moved.
What kinds of crimes have these inmates committed?
A lot of them have committed murder. A significant amount armed robbery, assault. So I mean, you’ll see these big guys saying that they never knew what love was. They come from very dark places. They go through a very rigorous vetting system to get to be in Puppies Behind Bars. It’s a rigorous program. They live with these dogs 24-7 and the dogs actually live in crates in their cells. They have them from when they’re 8-months-old to when they’re 18-months-old. And the dogs are taken out periodically to be socialized in other situations but mainly they’re raised in the prisons.
So to see these guys who a lot of our society thinks are garbage and unredeemable, [they] learn, first of all, what it’s like to care for another living creature and getting the life skills that will really serve them in good stead, if they ever get out. It’s an incredible story, and then to see the link between them and these veterans, who are actually kind of in the prison of their wounds. With these dogs they are brought back into life, literally.
Do the inmates get really attached to the dogs?
They do. The dogs are kind of raised by a community. There’s one main person who is responsible for them. But when we first went into this yard and met all the inmates with their dogs, there are about 24 of them. Frankie [the dog] went up to each one of them, one at a time, to greet them, and give them kisses. It was remarkable. She went all down the line. She had resonance with every single one of those inmates.
What do you hope people will take away from this Oprah episode?
You learn that 330,000 [soldiers] are coming back from these wars so far [and] PTSD is the signature wound of Iraq and Afghanistan – and it’s invisible. And it’s incredibly hard for these guys because they can walk down the street, they’re not in the wheelchair, they’re not on crutches. They haven’t lost a limb, as hard as that is. It’s stuff that they’re really battling with that’s incredibly traumatic. When they come back they can’t even go out of their house, some of them can’t even go out of their room.
I just think that as a population we should learn about this and be very, very sensitive to these guys. Especially if you see one with a service dog and it looks like there’s nothing the matter with them. They’ve done a huge service and to come back so shattered and so invisibly shattered, that is something that we should pay attention to.
You recently fostered a dog. Tell us about that.
I fostered a dog when I did something for [Rachael Ray’s talk show]. I decided to find out how a dog went through the system in New York. It was fascinating. I mean fostering is really crucial because it buys a dogs time. Otherwise they would be euthanized. There are so many dogs that come into our shelters, there’s just not room for them. So if you get a big population of people to foster, not only do they help socialize the dogs, get them more adoptable, but it also literally buys these creatures time.
Tell us about your dogs Bill and Jake.
Jake just turned 10 and Bill just turned 8. Jake is like a little shiny wise man, he’s one of the most intelligent dogs I’ve ever known and I grew up surrounded by dogs. And Billy is his sidekick. Jake is smaller than Bill but Bill, he doesn’t do anything without Jake. Jake is definitely the alpha, he washes Billy’s face at least twice a day. They’re in the back seat of my car right now!
So they travel with you a lot?
A lot. And I take them to work with me every day when I’m doing Damages. They love it because a dog only wants to be included. They’re allowed to come on the set during rehearsals. So everybody pats them, they go make the rounds with the crew. And the crew just loves it. Jakey, a lot of times actually, is laying on my feet when I’m doing a scene as Patty Hewes at my desk. That’s my little joke.
See Glenn Close on tomorrow’s new episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
For more information about Puppies Behind Bars, visit their Web site. Want to contribute to Dog Tags? For every DogTag Chewy Shoe toy sold, FetchDog and Chewy Shoe’s manufacturer, Vibram Pet Products, will donate $1 to support the Dog Tags program.