By California Men’s Colony Staff
After 21 months in the New Life K9s program, California Men’s Colony (CMC) celebrated the graduation of Rusty, a 2-and-a-half-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, and his human veteran, Henry, a military service member of 23 years and two tours.
The CMC West visiting room filled with guests last December, including a representative of Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, the Tribune newspapr, and The Latham Foundation, which is currently documenting the life of the prison dog program creator, Sister Pauline Quinn.
With breeders, puppy parents and NLK9s’ supporters, the morning seemed like a holiday reunion. “Allergies”, a term used as code for tears, were in the air, causing a chain reaction
The graduation of Rusty was a special event for everyone involved in this service dog’s life. NLK9s’ Founder and Director, Jack Gould reminded the audience of the holiday season.
He said, “There’s no better gift than what brings us here today: graduating a service dog.”
The event began with a short but touching opening by “The Dog Father” and Program Liaison, Lt. Pat Noland. It was evident that The Dog Father was proud to be standing in front of the room to present the first graduate of the program.
He made it clear that he loves his dogs. Following, Warden Josie Gastelo acknowledged Sister Pauline Quinn, and expressed her belief that the CMC program came as a divine inspiration.
And as speaker moved from one to the next, no one was more moved than when inmate handlers Christopher Bain and Wesley Bird spoke. Both handlers became visibly emotional as they thanked all those involved in the program.
Speaking directly to Rusty, who lay behind them at the feet of his veteran, Inmate Bird said, “Rusty will always be my good boy.”
NLK9s’ Director of Canine Education, Nicole Hern, spoke of each of the handlers that worked with Rusty – including Joshua Andritsch who opted not to speak – and how she has witnessed each of their growth while in the program. Each handler received a certificate of achievement for their commitment to preparing a service dog for a veteran or first responder.
Ms. Hern was moved to share about her connection with Rusty – a puppy in the NLK9s program that she personally worked with. She has been known to acknowledge all of the dogs as being like her kids.
The ceremony also included a short demonstration of exercises under the program’s Bond Based Approach by Jennifer Arnold of Georgia-based Canine Assistance.
Inmate Kris Blehm who served as the event’s emcee explained, “At NLK9s of CMC, we teach, we do not train; we bond, we do not boss. We help dogs gain the confidence they need to be successful, healthy, and free to think and make good choices on their own.”
To show off one of the elements that separates this prison program from others, the dog Josie retrieved a pair of boots for her handler, Frankie Castro.
Josie did so without his having to hear the word “boots” or any command.
The dog Hope offered a number of comfort skills including a snuggle, demonstrating ways that a service companion can help reduce anxiety. Eddie, another dog, showed off his cognitive abilities, identifying three different colored balls, retrieving them one at a time.
Eddie removed the sock of inmate handler, Michael Nelson. Eddie successfully completed the task, as six-month-old dog Gracie watched in anticipation to do a Like Eddie, showing how the inmate handlers use the older dogs to teach the puppies.
Closing the demonstration, the youngest of the bunch removed the sock and demonstrated how she is able to identify different objects by touching them with her nose.
Before Rusty’s veteran recipient closed out the event, the room witnessed a moving ritual of the handing off of the leash, inspired by NLK9s’ educator Rosa Mendoza. From private donor to puppy parents, Rusty was handed off and embraced until he finally reached his inmate handlers who dressed him in his official blue service dog vest before finally offering Rusty over to his forever handler.
Rusty’s graduation marks an important date for the prison dog program: after nearly two years of around the clock care for a canine companion, a public access service dog has graduated from the program.
With New Life K9s’ mission of Saving Lives Through the Healing Power of the Human-Canine Bond, Rusty has paved the way for his fellow canines to follow. As early as spring, Josie, Hope, and Eddie are all scheduled to be the next in line.
Hope’s inmate handler Richard Tran said, “Seeing a veteran receive one of our dogs reminds me of the importance of why it is we do what we do.”