Inmate dog training program provides new leash on life

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OTAY MESA, Calif. — It’s the last place one would look to find love and life shifting transformations, but inside the walls of Donovan State Prison, some inmates call it a new “leash on life.”

A graduation ceremony was held at Donovan State Prison Friday for the first dog 
to complete a program in which prison inmates train dogs for wounded armed service members and autism patients. The Labrador retriever, named
 Dante, has been placed with a wounded Army veteran to assist her with mobility
 issues and help her manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The program is called Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles & Creating Hope (POOCH). The program benefits not only the people receiving the dogs, but the dogs and prisoners as well.

“They say a dog is a man’s best friend, and they’re not wrong about that,” said inmate David Mix.

Mix is in charge of training his dog Saturn, a black lab turned service dog through the prison dog training program.

The program is fashioned after an inmate animal training program in Washington State. Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs helped to provide education and training guidance to the inmates. Mix, who has been behind incarcerated for 20 years, sees the benefits. He says the dog program helps teach inmates valuable skills.

“You help somebody out in the public that really needs a service dog,” Mix said. “You help the inmates, their morale their work habits, everything changes…With a dog comes responsibility. So you think about things a little bit different.”

Research has shown animal prison training programs like this are therapeutic, reducing violence in correctional facilities. Also, inmates who train dogs are performing a valuable service to the community.

“You have a sense of pride within yourself because you noticed that change. It’s a change for the better,” said Mix.

Meanwhile Dante, the first service dog graduate of POOCH inmate training has been placed with retired Army Captain Marlene Krpata.

During a deployment to Iraq, Captain Krpata was wounded, eventually losing her leg. After she retired, she found herself struggling. She was suffering from depression and other emotional issues. She says Dante helps manage her symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Having a service dog saved my life. Because instead of worrying about me or focusing on me or worrying about what’s going on in my head, what I think I did wrong in Iraq or whatever, I stopped doing that,” said Captain Krpata.

It’s a win-win and everyone agrees that perhaps more than one life is saved.

“When you feel like you’ve lost everything. And you worry about is not taking care of your troops. Taking care of Dante and worrying about his every little need is exactly what I needed,” said Captain Krpata.

Meanwhile, Mix is enjoying the progress his service dog Saturn is making. He says being a part of the program has changed how he looks at life.

“He has uplifted my spirit, given me a sense of pride that you normally won’t get just from doing time,” Mix said. “So it’s a positive situation for everybody. For myself, the dog and the beneficiary.”

Donovan State Prison plans to expand the program using shelter dogs. Those that are not successful service animals will be more adoptable when they graduate because of the training they have received.

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