- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - It didn’t take long for six puppies to bring a “life spark” back into the eyes of fifteen inmates serving sentences from five years to life at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.

As part of a new prison program from Salem-based nonprofit Joys of Living Assistance Dogs, on April 18 inmates got to meet the six golden retriever and Labrador puppies they will train into service dogs.

The puppies, who are between 8- and 12-weeks-old, will spend between 18 months and two years in the prison being trained by the inmates. When they’re done, they’ll become service dogs for people with disabilities and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The puppies have only had two weeks of training, but when they were assessed on Monday their training levels were closer to two months, said Cpt. Jeff Frazier. Frazier is the correctional officer who oversees this prison program.

Frazier said he thinks one of the reasons puppies do so well inside a medium-security prison is that their inmate trainers are solely focused on them. One inmate broke down crying when he first interacted with the dogs, saying he hadn’t pet an animal in 17 years, Frazier said.

Both Frazier and Joy St. Peter, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the main motivation they’ve heard from inmates wanting to participate is that they wanted to give back to society.

“They feel valued for the first time,” St. Peter said. “Some of them have never had that.”

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Each dog gets a primary and secondary caregiver. There are also three alternates who fill in when needed. If one of the caregivers is released, inmates move up the chain from alternate to secondary to primary. Then other inmates can apply to serve as an alternate.

Participating inmates must have good behavior over the past 18 months, with no animal-abuse or predatory crime convictions, Frazier said.

To apply for the program, inmates fill out an application, get their counselors to approve it, participate in an interview and interact with some of the older dogs that Joys of Living brings in.

Four more puppies are scheduled to come to the prison in August. Frazier said that every day when he’s out in the compound he gets asked when people can start applying to train those dogs. One man in particular tells him almost daily that he’s being good so that he can qualify for the program.

Even the inmates that don’t get to interact with the dogs are excited about them being there.

Right now, the other inmates can watch the puppies get trained from a distance. Later on in the training, the dogs will follow around their trainers everywhere they go, meaning the rest of the inmate population will have more exposure to them.

The prison would like to have 15 puppies in the program by the end of the year, St. Peter said. But that will take an additional several thousand dollars.

“They feel valued for the first time.”

Joy St. Peter, executive director of Joys of Living

The bulk of the funding for the program came through Share Tank, a fundraising event based off “Shark Tank” hosted by the Center for Community Innovation in the fall of 2015. The program raised $18,000, plus a few thousand more dollars since, St. Peter said. They had hoped for $60,210.

When the program is operating at full capacity, the nonprofit will be able to double the amount of puppies they had been raising, St. Peter said.

Joys of Living is also looking to expand the program into more correctional institutions.

The nonprofit is looking for volunteers in the Salem area who can help the dogs socialize when they get out of prison. Socializers take one to four dogs to public places.

St. Peter said that although housebreaking the puppies is the biggest current challenge, she thinks the inmates will struggle with saying goodbye to the puppies they’ve invested so much in. She said they’ll know they’ve performed a job well done - with another puppy to train right behind.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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