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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Captain, a Shiba Inu, a compact mountain dog, is lauded with attention from his trainers in the Pawsitive Program at the Timpanogos Women's prison. After only six days of training the dogs are responding well. The program teaches inmates how to train and socialize shelter dogs with positive reinforcement to become therapy and service animals, often for soldiers with PTSD.
Utah prisoners train service dogs for veterans

Learning compassion and care a big part of the Canines With a Cause program.

First Published Apr 16 2014 06:03 pm • Last Updated Apr 18 2014 10:43 am

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.

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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.

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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.

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