Inmates training dogs for the disabled



Posted on June 15, 2011 at 12:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 15 at 5:58 PM

MONROE, Wash. -- When Jonathon Thomas was convicted of assault after shooting a man six years ago, his cell at the Monroe Correctional Complex was a wake-up call.

"I knew right away I had to change my life," Thomas said.

As it turns out it, help came on four legs.

When prison officials announced a year ago they were allowing some inmates to keep dogs in their cells as a training program, Thomas jumped at the opportunity.

"I knew I wanted to give it a try," he said.

The program is a partnership between Monroe Correctional Complex and local non-profit organizations including Summit Assistance Dogs.

Offenders train dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities. The program has expanded since it began a year ago so that offenders now teach dogs how to perform both basic and advanced services.

When Corrections Officer Jaime Biendl was murdered at the complex in January, several programs were cut for security and staffing issues. But this program was kept intact.

"It's valuable for me and the dog," Thomas said. "When I was on the street, I had no discipline. Now I think things through more and I can make sense of things because I need those skills to take care of Ferris."

Ferris is the 2 year old dog Black Lab-Collie mix assigned to Thomas.

Dozens of inmates apply, but only 14 are accepted into the program and allowed to dedicate hours of one-on-one time to the animals in a series of nine week programs.

Only about 25 percent of dogs have the necessary skills to become service dogs. Summit wants to find those animals.

A first anniversary ceremony was held Wednesday for the dog program at the complex. The trainers told a group of fellow inmates, prison officials and reporters about their dog and what kinds of tricks they taught them.

Then it's time to say goodbye and wait for the next dog.

"It's never easy to let them go," Thomas said. "I actually shed a tear the first time I had to do that."