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Utah prisoners train service dogs for veterans

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



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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.

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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.


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"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.

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