A grant-funded dog training program at California state prisons has been successful in training shelter dogs to increase their chances at adoption.
But Paws for Life does so much more than that, inmates and prison officials say. Besides placing dogs in permanent homes, the program teaches inmates job and life skills and improves inmate morale at facilities overall.
"It's changed the whole dynamic of the yard," said Lt. Angelo Gonzalez at Mule Creek State Prison, where the program has been in place for about six months. Paws for Life got its start at a Los Angeles prison about three years ago, said Alex Tonner of Karma Rescue, the organization that administers the program.
The dogs have their own room on the prison grounds, and enjoy daily romps on the grounds when they aren't in training.
Friday's ceremony, attended by inmates' relatives, was punctuated by laughter and tears, as inmates, officials, volunteers and others spoke of their experiences.
One of the inmate dog trainers, Keith Bonnet, described a touching moment on the yard as a prisoner serving a life sentence wept as he stroked a dog for the first time in 30 years. Another, Donnie Austin, described the way working with dogs reawakened emotions of love and compassion he thought he'd lost forever.
Bonnet observed that the dogs were saving the inmates as much as the inmates were saving the dogs.
Paws for Life appears to be gaining momentum, Gonzalez said, with units across the state expressing interest in starting their own programs.