'I want to give back': Inmates train dogs to help veterans with PTSD

The dogs are selected for the program based on their temperament and learn 37 different commands over the course of about 14 months


By Elyse Carmosino
The Advocate

ANGOLA, La. — When Randy Finch first met Misty, the brown and white Australian shepherd was too timid to venture far outside her kennel, refusing to interact with people and eating very little.

It took Finch weeks of gentle coaxing before Misty finally began to trust the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola inmate.

"When she first saw me, her legs just locked. She was scared to death of me," said Finch, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. He's spent nearly every moment of every day with the dog since she arrived at the maximum-security prison. "I just loved on her for the first two to three weeks. She didn't eat a lot, so I got some really good treats and that kind of formed the basis of our relationship. We just became friends after that."

Finch's hard work is about to pay off. More than a year later, Misty is one of a handful of dogs set to graduate in the next few months from PAWS, the prison's volunteer-only training program that provides service dogs to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Introduced in 2017, PAWS, which stands for Prisoners Assisting Warriors Service, gives inmates a sense of responsibility and purpose while providing a needed resource, explained Lt. Col. Keavin Tanner, one of many who helped create the program alongside his wife, Lt. Sarah Tanner, at the request of Angola's former warden.

The dogs are selected for the program based on their temperament and learn 37 different commands over the course of about 14 months, Tanner said. By the time they graduate, they know a variety of skills to assist veterans with day-to-day tasks, including how to retrieve something dropped on the ground, how to bring someone their medication and even how to wake them from a nightmare.

Inmates who sign up for the program live with their canine partners around the clock, bringing them along to work programs, to meals, and to their cells at bedtime.

"At first it was a burden, but now she's like my partner," Finch said, Misty sitting dutifully by his side. "Training dogs is a whole 'nother world. You have to have good communication."

The pup is the fourth dog he's been paired with through PAWS, he continued, adding that working with an animal day in and day out has given him "a whole other level of patience."

"I want to give back. I want to be a builder instead of a destroyer," Finch said. "This is largely rehabilitation for me. It's a reflection of the person I want to be."

[RELATED: NYPD introduces 2 new emotional support K-9s who were trained by inmates]

Misty isn't the program's only success story.

Robert Bone, also serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, has been with the program since its inception. For him, PAWS is a way to atone for his crimes, allowing him to give back to a society he said he's taken so much from.

His dog, Wesson, is also set to graduate from the program in the coming months.

"Human life is valuable. I committed a crime, I came to Angola, and as I was going through the gates I realized my life had to change," Bone recalled. "I can't go back and change the past, but I can learn from it."

In 2019, PAWS boasted a certification success rate of about 75% — much higher than most service dog programs, which tend to hover closer to 40 or 50%, according to a 2021 report by service dog training nonprofit Atlas Assistance Dogs.

That number has since risen to 90% said Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the state's department of public safety and corrections. Out of the 20 dogs that have cycled through PAWS in the last five years, only two have failed to graduate.

After a brief disruption due to the pandemic, Tanner said the program is finally back in full swing and has only grown in popularity, with a total of 23 inmates currently signed up to train 10 dogs.

Each dog has a primary handler and a backup handler, he explained. If the primary handler is unavailable for any reason, the backup will step in to make sure the dog's training isn't disrupted.

Handlers start small with the pups and work their way to more complicated commands, slowly introducing them to a variety of situations they're likely to encounter once paired with their veterans.

"It's all baby steps," Tanner said. He noted that unlike many prison-led programs, PAWS operates completely off of donations and volunteers, rather than state funding.

Just recently, the program received a $6,000 donation from the Star of Magnolia, a chapter of the fraternal society known as Order of Eastern Star. Jim Josker, the organization's state chairman, said the money will go towards the dogs' food, medical expenses and anything else needed to keep the program up and running.

[RELATED: The dogs were trained by inmates. Now they will keep veterans company]

The organization also donated a pair of golden retriever puppies to take the place of two other dogs who recently graduated from the program.

"When you sit down and talk with these gentlemen, you'd never realize what they're actually in there for," Josker said. "But a lot of them have told me the same thing: That they love doing what they're doing. They feel a satisfaction to be able to pay back society for their wrongdoings."

Once the dogs complete their training, Lt. Tanner facilitates what her husband described as a "speed date," in which the program brings a group of veterans out to the prison and gives the graduated dogs a chance to find someone they bond with.

The dogs choose their veteran, not the other way around, Lt. Col. Tanner explained.

As he showcased his dog's progress alongside other inmates during a demonstration at the prison's Camp F chapel last week, Finch reflected on her impending graduation with mixed emotions.

Misty, he said, "is going to be the hardest dog for me to let go of."

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