*Article written by Denton Thompson and first appearing in Vinita Daily Journal.

It was a special moment on Thursday when inmates at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center presented graduation caps to their canine cell mates, marking the successful trial run of a pilot dog training program that socializes abandoned animals for adoption.

Dogs graduate prison training

The program entails taking dogs from the Peaceful Animal Adoption Shelter and pairing them with inmates, who train them in basic obedience skills so that the dogs can be successfully adopted.

The program was first green­lighted in February is funded solely through local donations to PAAS at no cost to the Department of Corrections.

The dogs, who live with their trainers in the cell block, learn basic commands including sit, stay, lay down, come, shake hands, high five, army crawl and more.

But more importantly, the dogs learn how to trust people again.

Warden Rodney Redman is a strong supporter of the program as it enriches the daily lives of the inmates.

“It’s a win­-win for everyone and I think that it’s a wonderful program. It benefits the staff and the offenders, and it benefits the animals and the families of their ‘forever’ homes. We feel good about that,” said Redman.

“It’s good for the inmates to have the responsibility of caring for another. That responsibility is what we’re looking for to rehabilitate them for when they return to the community. It’s something that brightens the day and it’s been a great program,” he said.

Due to the success of the trial run, Redman said that NOCC will be expanding the program, from two to five dogs, when the next batch of pooches arrive in early June.

He related how one dog, a lab­ mix named Jackson, was a little wild when he first arrived.

“Jackson was a wild dog but he turned out to be the calmest. It’s amazing to see how their personalities are influenced. It’s been a positive thing,” Redman said.

Perhaps no one appreciates the program more than the inmates themselves.

Two inmate trainers, who cannot be identified due to policy, were allowed to be interviewed about their experience.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity. I was very excited. Before the dogs got here, I was basically just doing time,” one inmate said.

“Since the dogs got here, I’ve had the opportunity to have responsibility and something to care for. It helps with my depression and things like that. I have a buddy, the best friend that you can have here,” said the inmate.

Another inmate trainer agreed.

“I was very excited when the program started. I was hoping to get a dog and have a friend while in the cell and walking around the yard,” he said.

“The best part was coming up here to train and teach them new commands. It makes me a better person. It taught me to take responsibility. It’s just like having a young one around the house. It benefitted me a lot and I’m ready for another one,” he said.

“I’m going to miss George. The first one is hard to let go of, but I really enjoy being a trainer at NOCC,” he said.

As part of Thursday’s graduation ceremony, inmate trainers presented George and Jackson with graduation caps and also wrote letters to their adoptive families.

The inmates also received diplomas and were presented with the tassels from the caps.

PAAS Executive Director Kay Stout brought this program to Vinita based on her life-changing experience with a similar dog training program at the state penitentiary in Lexington.

Thursday’s ceremony meant a lot to her.

“To see the smiles on the faces of the inmates and the pride of the NOCC staff validated everything. It validates the importance of the value that can come from reaching out to the inmates. I know what this kind of program means. The dogs have a greater chance at having a good life, and the research shows that when you bring humanity into the penal system, it lessens recidivism rates and also lessens the chances of their children offending. We have generations of families in the system,” Stout said.

PAAS has adopted out over 500 hundred hard luck dogs since opening the no ­kill shelter in 2013, mostly to homes in Colorado.

Those dogs were either strays from the Vinita Dog Pound, from other area shelters, or were surrendered by their owners.

“They were either strays or were abandoned by people who didn’t want them,” Stout said.