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For Missouri Prisoners Working with Broken Dogs, Healing Goes Both Ways

There's a different kind of rehabilitation happening inside Missouri's prisons — a program that offers even the most unruly repeat offenders another chance.

The Puppies for Parole program takes hard-to-adopt dogs from rescue groups and pairs them with selected prisoners to be trained and socialized.

The dogs often come from rough starts and abusive situations — much like the offenders who train the animals.

Since the program began in 2010, more than 5,000 dogs have graduated from the program and been adopted into homes. 

A white and brown terrier mix named Abby was among them.

Born deaf and blind in one eye, Abby had been adopted and returned to an animal rescue group twice before she was sentenced to do time at the prison in Licking.

"She was too energetic, too high strung, bouncing off the walls," said Joel Hopkins, Abby's inmate trainer. "All she needed was somebody to finally learn how to communicate with her."

Hopkins then demonstrated how he communicates with Abby, who was calm and focused.

Since she cannot hear and has limited vision, Hopkins used hand signals to get her attention, get her to come, sit, lay down and jump up. He then retrieved a Cheez-It from his fanny pack and rewarded Abby.

Laurie Barnaba is the recreation officer at the Licking prison and trains offenders to become dog handlers. In her view, the program does so much more than just turning rowdy rescue dogs into obedient, adoptable pets. 

"It's what the handlers have learned from the dogs," Barnaba said, watching Hopkins nuzzle Abby in a corner of the visiting room. "We get dogs in here that are broken. They are castaways, also. That is why they relate so well.

"They see a part of themselves in these animals," Barnaba said. "They are the best ones to know how to reach them because they know how they feel."

Hopkins, who is serving life without parole, agreed with Barnaba's sentiment. 

"It kind of gives me a chance to feel human again," he said. "I could never do for these dogs, especially her, what they do for me."

Inmates must maintain good conduct records in order to be considered for the program. And they cannot have any animal abuse charges on their record. 

Barnaba explained that the training method she teaches inmates is all about positive reinforcement — the dogs are never forced to do anything or yelled at.

If Barnaba catches an inmate losing his temper with an animal, she said she takes the dog and boots the inmate out of the program.

Two Springfield-based rescue groups have dogs go through the Puppies for Parole program. The Humane Society of Southwest Missouri sends dogs to the Ozark Correctional Facility, and Rescue One sends dogs to the South Central Correctional Center in Licking.

Not long after Abby completed her training program, her new family traveled from St. Peters to the prison to meet the dog and talk to Hopkins. 

Not all adopting families come to the prison to meet the dog and trainer, Barnaba said, but it's pretty special when they do. 

David and Emmy Yoder entered the visiting room where Hopkins and Abby were waiting.

"We searched for her for a long time," Emmy Yoder said to Hopkins. "We will treasure her. She has a big backyard waiting for her and a couch."

Hopkins smiled.

"She likes a couch," he said.

The Yoders listened intently as Hopkins explained about Abby's deafness and sight limitations, and how to use hand signals to communicate with her.

As with all dogs that go through the Puppies for Parole program, Abby's trainer kept a daily journal about her progress and challenges. That journal, along with training and care instructions, went to her new owners. 

"As you can see, now she is calm. When she came, she was bouncing off the wall," the inmate said to the Yoders. "She is very cautious. She does not trust easy. But I promise you, as soon as she understands you have her best interest at heart, she is amazing."

The News-Leader called the Yoders Tuesday to check on Abby. Has she been returned to the shelter for a third time?

"She is doing great," Emmy Yoders said. "She is sleeping right next to me now."

Emmy Yoders said they read through the journal and information that Hopkins prepared for them and are following all of his advice.

"He trained her so well," she said. "To think she was returned twice. We sometimes look at her and think — why? He was a miracle worker.

"I was so moved by the opportunity to go there and meet him and hear how he trained her," she said. "We try to tell her story and promote Puppies for Parole whenever we can. These are just incredible dogs that come out of this program."

Learn more about all the dogs currently in the Puppies for Parole program by visiting the website here.

(Story shared by Springfield News-Leader. For original story click here.)


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