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It’s a sunny day in Buena Vista, Colorado. On a grassy field, 16 men run through basic obedience drills with their leashed dogs—sit, stay, come, heel—then practice more specialized tricks. One participant, Conrad Archuleta, extends his forearm, and his mixed breed dog Carrie puts her front paws on it and closes her eyes as if in prayer.

“Pray Carrie! ‘Dear Lord, please help me find a good home where I will be loved … ‘” Then time is up, and Archuleta and the other dog trainers head back to their cells at Buena Vista Minimum Center.

Then time is up, and Archuleta and the other dog trainers head back to their cells at Buena Vista Minimum Center.

The prison hosts one of eight dog-training teams in the Colorado Correctional Industries Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program, which provides the outside community with trained dogs. Dogs live with “offenders” 24 hours a day, being socialized and taught obedience skills to help them be adopted—or keep their homes.

Of the more than 7000 dogs that have graduated from the prison dog program, over 3000 were rescued from being euthanized at animal shelters. The program is paid for by adoption fees as well as by the owners of the other 4000-plus dogs, who send their dogs to prison for a month of “boarding-in training” to correct behaviour issues. The standard adoption fee is $550 (there are “individualized” fees for hunting dogs or assistance dogs, but this is for regular family dogs), while boarding-in training is $600 for the first four weeks (four weeks is the minimum), and $100 for every week after.

“The interesting thing about it is a lot of the boarding-in dogs, the biggest majority of them come to us on their last legs,” says Debi Stevens, the program’s founder and supervisor. “In other words, somebody has said, ‘If you don’t come back a new dog, you’re going to end up in the shelter.’”

Stevens, who has been training dogs since she was 17 years old, started the prison dog program in October 2002 after a student in an obedience class approached her after class and asked if she’d be interested in starting a dog training program at a women’s prison in Cañon City, CO.

“I looked at him and said, ‘You bet I would,’” Stevens says. “I have a passion for helping people be successful with dogs.”

Five dogs in the pilot program have grown to 140 dogs at any given time in the Colorado prison system. Stevens says the program is not only a win/win for dogs and people in the community, but for offenders as well.

“What we discovered is that the dogs teach people new life skills,” she says.

For example, the dogs cultivate empathy and teamwork in offenders. The application process encourages self-improvement as well; offenders must have a high school diploma or a G.E.D. to participate, as they write daily in journals about the dogs’ training (the journals are later given to the dog owners), and cannot have had any disciplinary write-ups for six months before entering the program. Many offenders study for the G.E.D. and modify their behaviour to apply for the program; when they are released from prison, they carry the skills they’ve acquired to the outside, working in veterinary hospitals, kennels or as dog trainers, or applying them in their personal lives.

“I’ll talk to the offenders and they’ll say, ‘I’ve become a better parent because I’ve learned parenting skills from having a dog and keeping a dog all the time,’” Stevens says.

At the dog wing at Buena Vista Minimum Center—the dog trainers live in a separate part of the prison so other offenders don’t complain about things like barking—the members of the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program express gratitude for the opportunity, and a love of dogs.

Richard Ratajczwk runs through advanced tricks with Frankie, a friendly Airedale Terrier mix, like crab crawling, leaping onto two legs or praying (“We’re done praying for the Rockies since they’re not making the playoffs; now we’re praying for the Broncos”), lavishing the dog with praise after each trick.

“The coolest thing the program taught me is responsibility,” he says. “If we mess this up, we lose something that’s really cool.”

“The coolest thing the program taught me is responsibility,” he says. “If we mess this up, we lose something that’s really cool.”

Ratajczwk proudly shows a stack of certifications from dog training accumulated by around 10,000 hours of “leash time,” and says dog training is in his future.

“I plan on taking this out of here and doing something with this,” he says. “Someday I’m going to be able to go out there and put together a fantastic resume.”

Offender Randy Wisdom said the bonding between the dogs and trainers gives everyone a second chance.

“The rehabilitation for us and the dogs is outstanding,” he says. “We don’t know what the dogs’ background is, like they don’t know ours.”

He says he worked in the kitchens when he first came to prison and saw the bond of the dog handlers and was intrigued. Since being accepted into the program, he developed a mutual respect with the other trainers.

“We’re like a family here,” Wisdom says. “I’ve made good friendships with each and every one of these gentlemen.” Ruben Lujan has worked with Duke, a timid German Shepherd, for over a month. Initially Duke always tried to hide behind Lujan’s legs, but now he’s started to roll on his side to let people pet him. That change is a result of socialization with a hefty dose of love. Lujan says he equates it with being human.

“You can’t get frustrated and punish him for being afraid,” Lujan says, stroking Duke’s fur. “It takes a lot more patience and tolerance.”

Helping a formerly abused or neglected dog overcome fearful behaviour, such as submissive defecating or urinating, and learn to play is often one of the most rewarding aspects of the program for offenders. Animal shelter employees frequently suggest Stevens take their toughest cases into the prison dog program.

Offender Seth Reed has trained dogs with the program for one-and-a-half years, and enjoys rehabilitating the hard luck cases.

“The results are humbling … it gives me something I can visibly see with a dog,” Reed says. “I love it.”

Josh Hurst, an offender working with the program for seven-and-a-half months, spends his first day with Bosco, a chocolate Lab who already seems attached to his new trainer. Clearly Hurst’s approach to a new dog is working.

“I like to just bond with a dog the first few days, just love on them,” Hurst says.

He says it can be hard to say goodbye to dogs, but it helps that they get a new dog the same day. It’s also comforting to think about the dogs’ future.

“That’s the thing: you know they’re going to a good home,” Hurst says.

Kenneth Feilen, an offender training an energetic Boxer mix named Courtney, says for many offenders, training dogs that will enhance the lives of their owners is the first chance they’ve had to contribute to society.

“I’ve been in a long time, and this is the first thing where you can give something back to the world,” Feilen says. “It gives you so much to feel like you’re giving back.”

Prison dogs not only are trained to be family pets, but sometimes receive specialized training to be police dogs, skilled companions, or service dogs for people like veterans with PTSD.

Stevens works closely with the Stink Bug Project, which provides companion dogs to children diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, and Freedom Service Dogs, a nonprofit that rescues dogs and trains them for people with disabilities.

Colorado resident Laura Edwards recently started volunteering with the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program’s new “Skilled Companions for Children on the Spectrum” because her experiences with the prison dog program have been so positive. In September 2012, her family adopted Disco, a reddish Labrador Retriever left to the program by a breeder who had no use for a Lab with his colouring. At the time, her son Ian, who has sensory processing disorder (an autism-related learning disability), was five-and-a-half years old.

“Ian presents in a way that he’s disorganized in his thoughts, it’s difficult for him to stay on any one given task at a time, his emotions are intense—whether they’re happy or sad, they’re intense—he’s very sensitive, he can’t sleep alone,” Edwards says. “The night we brought Disco home was the first night in five-and-a-half years that my husband and I did not have a little boy in our bed with us.”

The Edwards family first met Disco at Sterling Correctional Facility with his trainer Christopher Vogt. Edwards says Vogt asked many questions about the family and watched Disco’s reaction to everyone carefully.

“It wasn’t all about us, it was about us and the dog. That made me respect him even more than I did prior to that,” she says.

Disco then transferred to the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for specialized training to be Ian’s companion. His trainer, Lori McLuckie, asked Edwards to film Ian when he was having a “meltdown” and used it in Disco’s training.

“She actually mimicked my son’s behaviours and trained Disco to react and respond to those mimicked behaviours, right down to the tone of his cry,” she says. “They’re truly, truly devoted individuals.”

Disco is trained to help comfort Ian in different situations. He knows commands like “snuggle,” “go to bed” (which means he jumps on the bed next to Ian), “Go Ian” and “kisses” to distract and redirect Ian (“and sometimes it’s just fun to tell him ‘kisses’ for me,” Edwards says). He’s trained that if two minutes go by and he’s not with Ian, he goes and finds him. He also shows kindness without direction, such as offering a dog chew or a pair of sweatpants to Ian when he’s crying.

Edwards says Disco sounds like a completely different dog than the ones offenders say they met when he first came to the program—shy, fearful, and with low muscle tone from having been kenneled too much.

“They’ve taken a dog who was crawling on the floor and turned him into a highly skilled companion,” she says. “It makes Ian’s life better.”

Edwards says her mother decided to send Asia, her six-year-old Shih Tzu, to the prison in-boarding for training after meeting Disco and seeing how well trained he is. When she left for a four-week stint in the prison dog program, Asia was a “diva” who soiled the house, barked, couldn’t walk on a leash, and even refused to sit on command.

“Since coming back home, Asia has not had an accident, she sits pretty when you ask her to, she does a dance—they taught her a little trick how to do a dance,” Edwards says. “She doesn’t seem like a different dog, but she seems like a better dog. She’s a better version of herself.”

Edwards says she hopes other people will adopt dogs from prison programs like the Colorado Correctional Industries Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program.

“How can you go wrong when you’re rehabilitating a human being and a dog is also being rehabilitated at the same time? I mean really, how can that be bad?” Edwards says. “It’s like two goods for the price of one.”

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Filmmaker Andrew Wright of Wright Brothers Films is documenting the transformation of dogs and offenders involved in the Colorado Correctional Industries Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program in a documentary series called “Castaways.” In the first segment, an abused chocolate Lab named Esther is brought to Stevens by the National Mill Dog Rescue, cowering and peeing from fear as she is lifted into a van. Wright filmed Esther five weeks later wagging her tail, chasing balls, and generally acting like a Lab for her trainer, Jason Mayo. “When he took that ball and threw that ball to her—the hair still raises up on my arms every time I think of it,” Wright says. “These stories need to be told.” He says it is inspiring to film the offenders and learn the ways the dog training program is changing their lives. “It’s all through this bond of a man and a dog,” he says. “They’re as cast away as the dog is a castaway.” He hopes people will watch Esther’s video at and share it with their friends to help increase public awareness and even start a movement. “People will start saying, ‘Why isn’t this program in my state, or my local detention facility?” he says. “It does work.” For more on this amazing series, go to: or