- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

BONNE TERRE, Mo. (AP) - Sean Like can only smile as Petey, a white mixed-breed dog with black spots his face, wags his tail and squirms beside him.

Like, a big and burly 31-year-old, is serving 25 years at the prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, for second-degree murder. Training dogs like Petey for the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Puppies for Parole program has changed his outlook on life, he said.

“I know now what it was like when I took someone from a family,” Like said. “I know what my mom is going through.”

A ceremony this week at the Bonne Terre prison - the same place where death row inmates are executed - marked the 3,000th dog adoption through Puppies for Parole.

Corrections Department director George Lombardi started the program in 2010. Lombardi, a dog lover, gathered the state’s wardens and told them of his vision for a program that could not only save countless shelter dogs from euthanasia or a lifetime in a cage, but also offer inmates an opportunity to learn life skills, patience, and regard for other beings.

“If there is a key thing missing (in many inmates), it is compassion for others,” Lombardi said.

Since its beginnings, the program has spread to 19 of Missouri’s 20 prisons. It works like this: Shelter dogs are paired with inmates for eight weeks of behavioral training. At the end of the program, the dogs are put up for adoption.

Most find homes immediately, many going to prison staff members who fall in love with the animals during the training process. Others go to the general public.

Amelmia Blanton, 25, of St. Louis, first learned of the program while she was a student at Saint Louis University, where she now works. When she and her husband decided to get a dog, she knew she wanted a Puppies for Parole graduate.

So on Thursday, Blanton was on hand to pick up Jan, a black, white and brown mixed-breed hound officially designated as the 3,000th adoptee.

She had already met Jan weeks ago and was taken by her calm demeanor. She was also impressed with her inmate handlers.

“There are stereotypes about what people in this facility are like,” Blanton said. “This program breaks that down. They’re people who love animals, just like me.”

Cynthia Jones, director of the Diana’s Grove dog rescue in Cabool, Missouri, said many of the dogs who enter the program have been badly neglected since birth. In prison, she said, they get their first bath, their first grooming, often their first real human interaction.

“Going to prison is the best day of a dog’s life,” Jones said. “We have seen dog after dog after dog go through amazing transformations.”

Similar programs have emerged in prisons across the U.S. Some go beyond basic training, with inmates helping to prepare service dogs for use with autistic or disabled children, the blind, veterans and mental health patients. A few of Missouri’s Puppies for Parole dogs get advanced training as helper dogs.

Maryland’s prison system operates several dog programs, including one called America’s VetDogs in which incarcerated veterans and other inmates train service dogs for adoption by veterans.

Mark Vernarelli, communications director for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the inmates who train the dogs meet with the veterans who will be recipients through Web-based conference calls. Some recipients bring the dogs back to prison for visits.

“It’s been a phenomenal success,” Vernarelli said. “The connection that these particular men make with this program is beyond comparison.”

Dog programs have extended into some jails, too. A program in Atlanta called Canine Cellmates pairs shelter dogs with inmates at the Fulton County Jail.

“The change in participating inmates is enormous,” Canine CellMates Executive Director Susan Jacobs-Meadows said. “It teaches them responsibility. It gives them accountability. As the guys start to achieve the goals, it starts to change how they feel about themselves.”

Bonne Terre Warden Troy Steele agrees. Many inmates come from dysfunctional homes and arrive in prison lacking normal human emotions, he said.

That changes as they work with the dogs. “You’re getting that affection and companionship, and you know that it’s real,” Steele said.

Ralph Wilmas has worked with the dogs in Bonne Terre virtually from the inception of the program. Wilmas, 53, is serving a life sentence for kidnapping, robbery and armed criminal action.

“This is the only program I’ve seen in 27 years of incarceration that gives you direct responsibility for another’s life,” Wilmas said in a speech during the Puppies for Parole ceremony.

“The dog softens my heart.”

Like’s dog, Petey, was born without eyes but is happy and well-adjusted. Like knows he’ll make a great pet.

Separating from Petey is hard, Like said. He’s already eager for the next dog.

“I’ve seen this program work miracles in guys’ lives,” he said.

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