Rescue dogs trained by inmates ready for next step on path to aid veterans

Three dogs and their trainers celebrated on Friday the completion of their first round of training to become service dogs for military veterans. But the dogs aren’t just any dogs, and they don’t have typical trainers, either.

The future service dogs are rescue dogs from Fresno Humane Animal Services. And, their trainers are inmates at Valley State Prison.

The inmates and dogs were paired through the prison’s service dog program, made possible by the nonprofit Doc’s Dogs for Vets out of Fresno. The nonprofit is run by the Pleitez family in honor of their late son, Spc. Benjamin Pleitez, an Army medic who died in Afghanistan.

By all accounts, everyone involved in the program benefits: Veterans receive service dogs to help them with various disabilities and therapy; the dogs find homes; and the inmates learn skills and responsibility as part of their rehabilitation.

On Friday, three dogs – Coby, Samson and Sierra – completed their first six months of training. They have about 18 months to go, including one year of applying their advanced obedience training in all types of environments before being matched with their veteran and learning tasks specific to their new owner’s needs, said Alice “Ali” Imel, the lead dog trainer.

Previously, inmates at Valley State Prison trained dogs from the Madera County shelter in basic obedience to make the dogs more adoptable and help the prisoners with their rehabilitaiton, Lt. Ron Ladd. The training programs for those dogs last about 10 weeks. The graduating dogs on Friday were the first at Valley State Prison who are on their way to becoming service dogs.

Imel, who volunteered her time at the prison, taught the prisoners to train the dogs using science-based, force-free methods that focus on positive reinforcement and what motivates the dogs.

At the ceremony, Imel said her mother discouraged her from going to a men’s prison to train dogs. “Because of this, I have joy in my life,” she said. “This is my purpose.”

The inmates and dogs demonstrated the tasks they worked on. The dogs did more than “sit” and “stay.” They fetched items, helped the trainers take off their socks, picked up their leashes when their trainers dropped them and even rode on a rolling walker.

During the ceremony, John “J.C.” Cook, a Navy veteran, told the story about losing his leg and struggling with addiction. He was accompanied by his service dog, a golden retriever named Ivy.

“I went down a dark path. I became addicted to oxycodone and came to a point where I didn’t want to live anymore,” Cook said. “There’s so many things dogs can do for people. ... Part of the reason I went down that path was because I didn’t have a purpose. This (Ivy) gives me a reason to wake up every day. I’m not alone.”

The inmates learned more than how to train the dogs. They also learned to care for them since the dogs lived with them in their cells for six months.

“Samson, when we first got him, he was very curious. No matter what you were doing, he would come to investigate,” said Anthony Hargrew, 50, one of the inmate trainers. “At first he had an issue with going to the bathroom. But the transformation he’s had on us is extraordinary.”

Hargrew’s training partner, Andrew Jones, 37, said learning to train Samson taught him patience, humility and responsibility.

“I’m an ex gang member, so when you’re on the streets you only care about yourself,” Jones said. “This taught me to care about something other than myself.”

Imel said she was proud of the inmates for learning how to get along and work together to train the dogs. “Just because you signed up for the dog program, doesn’t mean that you hang out with these people,” Imel said. “Now you have to live with each other and raise your dog child.”

Jones said that although he and Hargrew came from different backgrounds, Samson brought them together.

“Previously, we would have been at war with each other on the streets,” he said. “Now, I see him for the man he is, not the color of his skin or where he came from.”

Victor Trillo, a 36-year-old prisoner from Madera, said he was happy for an opportunity to give back.

“We’re hoping that Sierra is able to go and impact a veteran’s life and make life easier for him or her,” Trillo said. “This is a way to give back to society for the wrong that I have done.”

Valley State Prison is a medium security prison and currently houses about 3,400 inmates.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477