Story by Denton Thomason – first appearing in the Vinita Daily Journal May 5, 2017.
The companionship of man’s best friend can have a life-changing effect for Oklahoma inmates serving time.
That bond was on display in Vinita on Wednesday, when the fifth class of dogs from the Peaceful Animal Adoption Shelter graduated from a basic obedience training program at the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center.
The innovative program, which pairs hardluck shelter dogs with inmates, trains them in basic obedience commands so that they can be successfully adopted out to their permanent homes.
The dogs live with their inmate trainers and are rock stars at the prison.
Those dogs who exhibit exceptional potential, such as a German shepherd named Max, are selected to complete advanced companion training to help those suffering from PTSD, or who have physical disabilities.
“It has been a longtime dream of mine for the NOCC to set the standard for giving inmates a second chance, as well as training these dogs,” said PAAS Executive Director Kay Stout.
“It’s a growing program for us, and I could not be more pleased with the support of Warden Casey Hamilton and the NOCC staff. The best is yet to come,” Stout said.
Aside from the basic 16-week obedience training course, the inmates are also educated in canine health, grooming, general handling and more.
During the graduation, the inmates trainers spoke about the impact the program has made on them.
The trainer of a mixed-breed named Piston said, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s what he is to me. Not only does he brighten the mood of everybody he comes into contact with, he’s changed our lives. So I know he will change the lives of others.”
The inmate described the program as “a positive outcome from a negative consequence.”
“I would like to convey our gratitude,” he said, thanking head trainer Teri Brant, NOCC PAAS coordinator Ashely O’Brien, Warden Hamilton and the entire staff.
“Thank you so much for being so accommodating. It’s a blessing, it truly it is,” he said.
One of the trainers has been with the program since the beginning.
“I’m approaching my twelfth month in the PAAS program. There’s been some ups and downs, but my fourth dog is my best student,” said the trainer of a shepherd-border collie named Bonnie.
“I’ve learned extensive skills along the way; discipline and responsibility that I can use in the workplace when I’m released,” he said.
The trainer of a shaggy dog named Georgia, said, “She’s one of my favorites. As I was laying in bed I realized she was leaving.” The inmate knelt and said, “Thank you, Georgia.”
One dog named Simon, who has been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, will have corrective surgery paid for out of a GoFundMe account.
After his recovery, he will return to the NOCC as a longtime resident.
He shook the hand of his trainer and barked a “thank you” on command.
The trainer of a brown mixed-breed named Girlfriend, who is the first graduate to be adopted out to a Vinita home, said, “PAAS has done so much for me. To see and meet her new owners is an added dream. They couldn’t have found a better dog.”
Liz Williams, who adopted Girlfriend, described taking her home as “very exciting.” “They’ve already done all of the work,” she said.
The NOCC training program is funded solely through PAAS at no cost to the Department of Corrections.