Offenders at CMC-West help teach service dogs so they can be given to military veterans battling PTSD.

By California Men’s Colony staff

Recently, Undersecretary Ralph Diaz dubbed the New Life K9s (NLK9s) program of the California Men’s Colony West, “one of the best in the Department.”

NLK9s is a non-profit organization that trains service dogs and places them with military veterans with PTSD at no cost to the veteran. At CMC West, 26 inmate handlers are currently teaching 11 service-dogs-in-training and preparing them for lives of service.

In early June, the NLK9s organized a demonstration called “Life of Service” for Sister Pauline Quinn, who is responsible for creating the prison puppy program. Sister Quinn chose the NLK9s program to highlight in her upcoming documentary, in collaboration with The Latham Foundation, due out some time next year.

A June event at CMC honored the founder of the program.

NLK9s also hosted a “demo day” with a guest list that included Bonnie Bergin, the pioneer of the service dog, from the Bergin University of Canine Studies (Rohnert Park, California).

The Bergin school is the only accredited dog training school in the world that receives its accreditation from Sonoma State College. Bergin said that the NLK9s presentation was the most consistently thoughtful that she has seen.

The program is led by Lt. Patrick Noland, the NLK9 program liaison, program supervisor Correctional Officer R. Arellano, and NLK9s volunteers. The success of this program is largely due to the support of the CMC Administration and staff.

“With the daily support of everybody here in the prison, our mission seems more attainable and enjoyable. I feel fortunate that our program is part of a community that cares about the mission of NLK9s,” said inmate handler Michael Nelson.

Throughout the Department, a number of dog programs are sprouting up. Their missions and objectives vary, some overlap. What separates the NLK9s program from all the others is their approach of training, which is really more about teaching.

Transitioning from a positive reinforcement methodology, NLK9s now follows a philosophy known as Bond-Based Choice Teaching, “an entirely new philosophy based on social learning in which we build strong relationships with our dogs through bond-building exercises. [Bond-Based] helps build great relationships based on mutual respect, trust, understanding and care,” according to the website.

The creator of Bond-Based, Jennifer Arnold, recently signed copies of her latest book, “All You Need Is Love,” for the inmate handlers.

When asked about the importance of the transition, Lt. Noland said, “Bond-Based Choice Teaching puts less pressure on the dogs; it gives them the ability to make choices for themselves. It also provides the inmate handlers with a different way of thinking about parenting and communicating; it gives them added tools to live as better examples for others.”

During the June 7 demonstration, NLK9 Director Jack Gould spoke of how the CMC program is serving as the example for other programs to follow.

Lt. Patrick Noland oversees the New Life K9s program at CMC-West, with support from the prison’s administration, like Warden Josie Gastelo.

Inmate handlers, their K9s, volunteers and staff at CMC-West.