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Training therapy dogs helps soften CMC inmates doing the hardest time

Forty-nine-year-old Bernard Henderson is a convicted murderer who was sentenced in 2003 to a life term with the possibility of parole. Over the past 14 years, he has learned to respect his victim and move beyond his crime.

Recently, he’s done it with the help of a dog.

Henderson is one of 25 long-term California Men’s Colony inmates participating in a program that trains dogs to help veterans and first responders cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Through a partnership with the nonprofit New Life K9s program, some of CMC’s harder inmates — serving time for offenses like murder, assault, armed robberies and fatal driving under the influence — now are working extensively with the dogs inside the prison under the guidance of professional canine educators.

“I’ve moved past the shame and guilt of my crime,” Henderson said. “I do respect the victim and the victim’s family. Now, it’s not just about being a man that does good things, but being a good man and giving back to the community.”

After two years of training, the canine graduates are presented to the veterans and first responders at no cost.

Therapy dogs

The program has a therapeutic effect for inmates as well. Along with community audience members, some inmates were brought to tears at a recent graduation ceremony of the program’s first dog.

“A lot of inmates don’t like to show an emotional side,” said Monica Ayon, the prison’s public information officer. “Some of them have been in prison for 20 or 30 years. But they get close to these dogs, and sometimes it just comes out. They break down.”

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Henry Garcia, a 23-year veteran of the military was presented with Rusty, a service dog. A new program at California Men’s Colony teaches inmates to train dogs for service. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The program, started at CMC in 2015, recently graduated Rusty, a yellow Labrador retriever, to help Nipomo resident Henry Garcia, a 23-year military veteran who served in Afghanistan.

“Training Rusty has taught me so many things,” said Wesley Bird, 43, a CMC inmate incarcerated for second-degree murder and attempted murder. “He has taught me to listen, to love him and want the best for him. He’s like a son I never had.”

Bird was one of three inmates who trained Rusty. As with the other service dogs in training, they worked with him on weekdays, keeping him by their side around the clock while puppy raisers took him home on weekends to learn community socialization skills.

The training teaches the dogs 104 skills and responses to help their owners deal with stresses such as anxiety, depression, sleeping difficulties and nightmares, or perform physical tasks like retrieving shoes or removing socks.

Inmates demonstrated how the dogs can distinguish between different colors of balls, yank a sock off a person’s foot and help them up if they’ve fallen. The dogs also cuddled with inmates to express affection and display how they can lift spirits.

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A new program at California Men’s Colony teaches inmates to train dogs for service to vets and first responders with PTSD. Inmate Chris Woodard gives a treat to Quinn, a yellow Labrador. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Source of comfort

They say dogs are man’s best friend — and maybe never more so than for those hardened by prison life.

The bonding-based program trains dogs to anticipate the needs of veterans or first responders. The dog is there to comfort those who have experienced trauma and are feeling down.

The inmates are screened and selected to become trainers based on demonstrated good conduct and if their file shows no history of animal abuse.

“They say today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor, and it’s programs like this that inspire a passion to help our inmates go back into the community and not screw up again,” said CMC Warden Josie Gastelo.

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Josie Gastelo has been warden at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo since September 2015. A new program at CMC teaches inmates to train dogs for service to vets and first responders with PTSD. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Henderson said that he has learned how to bond with the dog and communicate with it gently, not jerking on the leash or giving the animal harsh commands. He’ll be sad when the Labrador, Quinn, leaves to unite with a new owner.

Graduation speakers included CMC Lt. Patrick Noland, nicknamed “the Godfather,” and Jack Gould, founder of the program. Sister Pauline Quinn, a nun who created the first service-dog program inside a prison in 1981, also attended and addressed the program’s participants. Quinn wrote the letter that prompted CMC to initiate a program.

For Frankie Castro, a 42-year-old inmate serving 10 years for assault and burglary, the program has a been a pleasant surprise in an otherwise difficult situation.

“I never expected this and couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity,” he said.

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