New Life K-9 Rescue works with inmates to train service dogs

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SOLEDAD — Veterans are getting a helping hand — or rather, a helping paw — to help them overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The New Life K-9 Rescue in San Luis Obispo has been teaming up with the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo and the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. Through the program, dogs are taught by inmates to serve veterans and first-responders who suffer from PTSD and other disabilities.

According to Director of Training Nicole Hern, the team travels to the different prisons at least once a week. Right now the program has 12 dogs and 26 inmates in the program.

Among the dogs in the program is Hercules, who is 6 years old. Hercules cannot be placed with someone with a disability because he is too emotional, according to Hern.

"He let's his emotions override what he knows he should or shouldn't be doing," said Hern. "He's got a very intelligent doggy brain and then when his emotions kick in all of that just goes away."

Hercules is the service dog that Hern and her team use when other dogs are nervous about going places. Hercules went through positive reinforcement training, which rewards the dogs for doing what the owner or trainer asks; however, Hercules' training has switched over to bond-based choice teaching, which focuses on bond between the human and the dog.

"We're not treating the dogs like they're employees, it's more of a partnership," said Hern. "They still learn to do the same skills, we just teach them differently."

Hern says that she enjoys working with the inmates because they have a lot of time to devote to the dogs and allows New Life K-9 Rescue to provide more dogs to veterans who need them.

"The dog programs within the prison system are starting to get more and more popular," said Capt. Darren Chamberlain. "There's probably about nine programs from different prisons throughout the state. Only about three programs are service dog related."

Chamberlain says that inmates are released from prison and need some sort of rehabilitation so when they become neighbors, and members of society, they are more productive versus causing trouble.

"When we have these dogs on the facility, not only are we giving back to our veterans, but they're also helping the inmates with their rehabilitation process," Chamberlain said. "When you introduce those dogs into maximum security prisons, you can see the difference in everyone."

Chamberlain said that many of these inmates have not pet a dog in 30 or more years, and the change was visible.

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