Utah prisoners train service dogs for veterans
By Marissa Lang
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 16 2014 06:03PM
Draper • He was found on the streets, cold and alone. He had no identification. No family. No name.
Now, he lives inside the thick concrete walls of the Utah State Prison.
It’s not a bad life, prison officials said.
He’s given food and shelter, exercise and a place to lay his head — not to mention love.
Valor, a scruffy black dog with bright eyes and dark mahogany whiskers hanging from his chin, is one of six canines being fostered by prisoners in the Timpanogos Women’s Facility as part of a new program in which inmates train them to be service dogs for wounded veterans.
None of the dogs was bred for this.
All were plucked from shelters, rescued from the streets. Valor was a stray.
"It’s like we were both discarded by society in a way," said Silia Olive, one of Valor’s two inmate trainers. "We understand what that’s like. It makes us love him even more."
Olive has been locked up for 12 years. She was convicted of murder, conspiracy and aggravated kidnapping for her role in a series of crimes that led to the gang-related slaying of a 21-year-old woman.
In the time since, she’s learned well the lessons prison teaches: Don’t cry, don’t feel, trust no one.
It has taken only a week for those habits to come undone.
"[The dog program] brought down a lot of walls with us," said Olive, who was assigned to Valor a little more than a week ago. "I got emotional the other day just watching him. I started thinking how I can’t imagine anyone ever hurting him and I started to cry. … He’s turned me into a ‘Sesame Street’ character."
She’s not the only one.
Corrections Capt. Maryann Reding said the change in the prison has been palpable: The cellblocks where the dogs live have been better behaved; there’s a joy and lightness in the air wherever the animals go; hardened criminals get down on hands and knees to play with the dogs, while guards stop by the cells to help or say hello.
"Everyone has been so excited to have them here," she said. "It’s fun to see the kind of unity these dogs have created."
Before the animals were brought into the prison, inmates interested in becoming handlers underwent a rigorous application process followed by weeks of training with nonprofit Canines With a Cause, which runs the program.
To be considered, the women had to have clean disciplinary histories, no history of animal abuse or sex crimes and the ability to get along with others.
A total of 15 inmates were accepted into the program — 12 trainers and three alternates.
To stay in the program, prisoners must remain in good standing, get along with their assigned roommate and co-trainer, attend twice-weekly sessions with Canines With a Cause and respond to their dogs’ round-the-clock needs.
"It’s hard work," Reding said. "I think, at first, they thought, ‘Oh, we’re getting puppies!’ But it didn’t take long for them to realize how tough it’s going to be. Most days, these girls are the first ones up in the morning and the last ones to go to bed at night — because they have to walk the dogs."
The women use clickers and positive reinforcement to train the animals to obey commands, ignore distractions and perform specific tasks their future owners may need.
When they do as they’re supposed to, the dogs are given treats. Chopped turkey hotdogs are a group favorite.
Ostensibly, it’s the dogs who are being molded.
But really, the training goes both ways.
Women who have committed crimes of passion learn patience and impulse control. Women who lied and stole and cheated learn to trust and be trusted. Women who took the lives of others learn compassion and care.
When the dogs leave prison, they’ll be headed for lives of service.
When the women leave prison, they hope to do the same.
"I wanted to prove that I could take care of something other than myself," said Sawsan Whitelaw, who is training a small boxer-pit bull mix named Glory.
Whitelaw, who is serving an indeterminate prison term of five years to life after pleading guilty to murder in the death of her 3-year-old daughter in 2002, said until this week, she wasn’t sure she could do it.
"I had a lot of anxiety before we got her," Whitelaw said, staring down at the small copper-coated dog. "I’ve never had a dog before. But it’s been a week and not only do I feel more confident, but this little dog tugs on your heart. She’s been tugging on mine."
The program, director Cathy King said, saves countless lives.
"These women like the idea that they’re saving a dog who had a tough life, who may have been abused, who was put in a shelter — not some cute little golden retriever who’s a perfect puppy and had a perfect life," King said. "You can save four lives here: the dog’s, the prisoners’ and the veteran’s."
Several of the women participating have a tie to the military — family members, friends, ex-husbands who served.
Prisoner Camille Randles, one of the trainers for a dog named Captain, worked for a time with the USO.
As a nod to their future human companions, the dogs are given patriotic names and camouflage bandanas they will trade for similar-patterned service dog vests.
That’s about the only things they have in common.
Each dog, like each female trainer, has its own personality.
Valor has a problem with male authority.
Jet — a small white dog, whose hair trainers Reggie Peck and Cassandra Shepard styled into a blue and green mohawk using Kool-Aid mix — is known around camp as "the wacky one."
Liberty, the biggest of the bunch, suffers from "size denial," her trainers joke.
Captain refuses to sleep inside his crate, but, his handlers said, prefers to lie on top of it — "like Snoopy."
Star, a dachshund mix, likes ducks.
Glory, whose small stub of a tail is the result of being thrown through a car window by her previous owners, is a girl’s girl, her trainers said — "prissy, pretty and neat."
Canines With a Cause training program director Shaun Woodard helped pair the dogs up with each training duo based on personality, he said.
Capt. Reding said the pairings are spot on.
"You can even see it in the way they walk," she said, laughing. "Jet’s trainer Reggie has this gait when she walks, and you can see Jet walking right behind her, moving his tail the same way."
There is never a moment a dog is left without a human companion.
This 24-7 approach is what makes prisoners the ideal trainers, King said.
Ordinarily, that kind of round-the-clock attention would cost thousands of dollars.
The dogs will remain with their trainers for six to nine months before being turned over to their veteran owners. Not even two weeks into it, the prisoners are already dreading their goodbyes.
"I’m already so attached," said Shauna DeHerrera, Captain’s other trainer. "Having him here with us every day, it gives us a reason to wake up every morning. It lets us know we’re not total failures. It lets us know we can heal."