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State prisoners train shelter dogs to be companion animals for veterans with PTSD

KCBX News, Rebekah Nolan
Inmates at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo County demonstrate the training they've done with New Life K9s.

A group of prisoners at the California Men's Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo County are working to train former shelter dogs so that the animals can one day act as companions for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This summer, the inmates showed off their results thus far with these dogs—about a third of whom could have been euthanized, had this program not been in place.

The prisoners have also stated that the program, run by San Luis Obispo-based New Life K9s, has helped the inmates relate to one another.

There are 50 or so inmates taking part in the program. On the day KCBX visited the facility, they were all dressed in dark sweatpants with the word PRISONER printed in large yellow letters down the leg. As they filed into the room for a demonstration, most came in pairs, two men to a dog.

This event was scheduled to show how their work with the animals is going thus far.

A man named Rufus Williams is among the prisoners taking part and described a typical day that an inmate trainer might have.

“I get up ‘about five o’clock. I get my dog out of her kennel, ‘cause the dog sleeps right at the foot of our beds. I would take her outside and let her relieve herself, and then I would walk a mile with her," Williams said. "I bring her back in, feed her and from there we go to training. And we train for about three, 30 minute sessions a day.”

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, one in three combat veterans have PTSD, and 23 a day will commit suicide. It was statistics like these that first inspired CMC to partner with New Life K9s.

Service dogs trained in this program help veterans with everything from remembering to take medication to soothing the veteran during a panic attack.

Jonathan Benton, a veteran who received a warrior support dog explained how his dog was particularly helpful to him when it came to road rage.

“With my anxiety and stress levels, I definitely tend to be an angry driver at times," said Benton. "He senses it really well, he knows when I’m getting hypersensitive and is able to react appropriately to that. Which really does help me. Any time he’s in the car with me he gives me a gentle reminder of just putting his head on my arm while I’m sitting on the console, just to remind me to calm back down.”

Benton says his service dog, Olaf, has been life changing for him.

“Olaf has become my best friend," said Benton. "He pretty much comes everywhere with me. I’m so thankful to New Life K-9 and everything that they’re doing and I’m truly honored to be a part of it.”

Organizers at the prison said that the program isn’t just helping veterans, it’s also having a beneficial side effect for the inmates.

Training director Nicole Hern explained that in addition to giving the inmates a sense of giving back to the community, the program could be changing the culture of the prison itself. She said, “We didn't even consider race when we were pairing them and it just so happened that they're all paired up with somebody of another race. And they shared that that has really help them.”

Williams echoed this sentiment as well.

“The dogs have erased the racial lines that you would find in a normal institution," said Williams. "So, the diversity of different guys input on training the dog has been beneficial to me as a person.”

The program also gives hope to some of the incarcerated veterans in California Men’s Colony that they too will receive a service dog once they are released. Keith Craven, one of the inmate trainers at CMC, and president of the prison’s veterans group.

Craven was in the navy for over seven years and is suffering from a spinal disorder. He said The "New Life program has helped me a lot considering that I’m also a disabled vet. One day in the near future I may need a dog to assist me.”

Since formerly incarcerated veterans are also considered for New Life K9s service dogs upon release, Craven’s hope may one day become a reality.