An adorable dog named Dante was released from prison Friday, but his time behind bars wasn’t for any crime. He was the first to graduate from a training program run by inmates.
Prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility have teamed up with Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs to prepare animal assistants for helping wounded veterans and people with autism.
Dante, a black Labrador retriever, spent the last four months learning tricks and skills from inmates. On Friday, he was awarded his official service dog vest and went home with Marlene Krpata, a retired Army captain.
Krpata told NBC 7 she’s seen an incredible change in Dante since he entered the program, called Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles and Creating Hope (POOCH).
"They made it so he doesn't give up on things,” she said. “Like when I was in my wheelchair, for him to get down and pick up things for me or to get them and put them up on counters, he's very adamant about getting it done.”
Not only can Dante assist with physical tasks, but emotional ones as well. Krpata suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, so when she feels increased anxiety, Dante is trained to help calm her down.
“So when I wake up thinking someone's in my house, and he's in there asleep, I know there's no one in my house, and it immediately allows me to calm down and bring my heart rate down,” said Krpata.
Officials with the correctional facility say the dog training benefits their inmates as well, reducing violence through the therapeutic benefits of having a dog around.
David Mix, who has been incarcerated for 20 years, would agree.
"Being incarcerated, there's so much going on with the negativity that surrounds an institution,” he said. “There's so much that we have to endure, so being able to have a pet while you're incarcerated? It doesn't get much better than that."
A self-proclaimed dog lover, Mix also volunteered for the program because he has a nephew who was diagnosed with autism, so he wanted to give back to someone like his relative.
Mix has been working with a dog named Saturn for about six and a half months. He said normally, it takes about two year to properly train a dog, but because the inmates are with theirs 24/7, they can cut that time in half.
"It's good too because once he learns a behavior, I sit back and I'm like, 'Wow, I got this dog to do that?' It's a blast,” he said.
Right now, POOCH is limited to the fire house branch of the prison, but officials are considering expanding it to the rest of the population.