Paws in prison — Utah inmates help to train therapy dogs for veterans

Published: Thursday, April 17 2014 5:50 p.m. MDT

Inmate Reggie Peck hugs Jet at the Utah State Prison in Bluffdale Thursday, April 17, 2014. During the past month, local nonprofit Canines With a Cause relocated six shelter dogs into the womens facility at the prison, where they were paired with 12 women. Over the next six to nine months, the inmates will train the dogs to assist Utah veterans.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

UTAH STATE PRISON — Jet is a formerly abused rat terrier-chihuahua mix whose personality has really changed for the better after spending his first week at the Utah State Prison.

A mohawk haircut, now dyed blue and green, "definitely gave him some confidence," said one of the dog's trainers, Reggie Peck, who is serving a sentence of up to 15 years for child abuse.

"It gives us something in here that is a very valuable service for someone else on the outside," she said. "At the same time, it lets us learn a new skill."

The dogs, who are some of the first non-official, four-legged creatures allowed at the secure facility, are being trained to provide assistance to Utah veterans, who sometimes don't have the focus to do the job themselves.

The program, made possible by a partnership between the prison and the nonprofit Canines With a Cause, puts six shelter dogs at the prison to be trained for about nine months. The arrangement helps the organization save thousands of dollars that it costs to train a therapy animal.

If it is successful, organizers hope to train more dogs there in the future.

"It's really healing for us to be able to love these little guys," said Cassandra Shepard, who is serving a life sentence for being party to the abuse and murder of a woman who had disabilities. "Staying busy is one of our main coping skills to combat the sorrow and remorse for our mistakes."

"All we've got is time," she said, adding that there is little to keep inmates "stimulated and motivated" in the mostly confined prison campus that boasts just a half-mile radius.

The dog-training program has become one of Shepard's "life lines," giving her a sense of purpose and hope.

"Hope is all you have to hold yourself together," she said, adding that it was an "honor" to be chosen to participate.

Of 143 women in one unit at the prison, only 20 were eligible to house and train the dogs under the facility's strict qualifications, which exclude anyone convicted with a sex offense or animal cruelty charge, as well as women who have exhibited misconduct at the prison in the past nine months.

Twelve women were selected to co-train the dogs and another three alternates were selected in case the original trainers couldn't complete the task, according to Lt. Tawnya Nicholes, who oversees one of the four female housing units at the prison.

"It has done a lot of good for their self-esteem and sense of self-worth," she said. "It lets them care about something more than themselves for a while."

The female inmates must organize their schedules to ensure proper care for the dogs, as well as attend twice-weekly training classes taught at the prison by Canines With a Cause staff members.

So far, the dogs respond to a tiny, handheld clicker, which helps each trainer teach the animal basic habits such as "sit," "stay" and "down."

It helps, however, that the "click" is followed up with a treat — a tasty chunk of a turkey hot dog.

"We want the ground work to be really strong," said Ph.D.-trained animal behaviorist Lynne Gilbert-Norton, who works with Canines with a Cause. "Hopefully these dogs will one day be responsible for a veteran, and they must be relied on to handle any situation."

Shelter dogs, she said, are more of a challenge to train than dogs that are typically bred for service or companionship, as many exhibit behavioral problems — an issue not too unfamiliar to some of the inmates.

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