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A healing bond

Through Coffee Creek Correctional Facility's Puppy Program, inmates learn how to train dogs and work together


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Inmates stand with dogs they helped train during a graduation at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.The first day Jennifer Hinde walked into prison, she saw a dog and instantly knew she had to be part of whatever program it belonged to. She applied right away and was denied. So she applied again. And then she applied again. Over the course of six years, Hinde applied to the Canine Companions for Independence program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility three times before being admitted.

“It was well worth the wait,” she said. “I did some stupid stuff to come to prison, but this isn’t a bad journey. It’s what you make of it. To see that I’m changing people’s lives...”

Hinde trailed off. CCI dogs go to people with disabilities, and those trained at Coffee Creek in Wilsonville complete the entire program at a much higher rate than those trained with volunteers elsewhere. The women’s prison ended with an 89 percent success rate last year, compared to the national average that falls around 50 percent. Last month, a graduation was held for the dogs that have moved, or are about to move, beyond Coffee Creek after spending 1.5 years of their lives in prison.

“(The dogs) get a lot of really dedicated attention. The handlers at Coffee Creek are just really focused on doing a good job and doing things right and doing the best they can,” said Heather Ohmart, Coffee Creek’s CCI contract trainer of seven years. “They’re very, very dedicated to the end result.”

While the dogs trained outside prison walls are typically handled by only one or two people, the dogs at Coffee Creek are rotated every month. This is done in an effort to minimize the inmates’ attachment to the dogs, as well as help the dogs acclimate to being around a variety of people and teaching styles. Currently, Coffee Creek has nine handlers and is in the process of adding several more to the program.

Though attempts are made to keep the inmates from growing too attached to the dogs, it’s impossible for the women to completely desensitize their feelings. As Hinde said, “The day they’re walking out the door, we’re all sobbing.” Yet, they know what they’re doing is worth it because of what the dogs provide to whomever they’re ultimately matched with, whether it’s a child with autism or a wounded veteran. And of course, the dogs help the women who train them, too.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dogs trained by inmates from Coffee Creek follow their trainers during the graduation of service dogs at the facility.

“Probably the biggest challenge is always interpersonal skills. But those are skills that they have to learn for the outside world, too,” said Ohmart, who teaches class for the handlers once a week. “I think that for all the time we put into working on those issues, it’s all really beneficial in the long run.”

During their stay at Coffee Creek, the dogs are with their handlers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They sit under the table during meals and sleep in their handlers’ cells; they accompany their handlers to work and are next to them as they navigate the prison halls. Because training service dogs requires so much person/dog togetherness, it can be an isolating endeavor. So not only do the inmate handlers have to work well with dogs, they have to work well together since they’re each other’s support system.

“They pretty much do everything together...It’s really critical that they are able to communicate and get along and work well with other people, because it’s a lot of togetherness. More than most people have to do with anyone else,” said Ohmart. “If they’re having problems with other handlers, it’d be easy to just walk away from that, but it’s not easy to walk away from the dog program. So, they have to resolve those issues and they have to learn those skills in order to get along with everybody. That motivation is huge.”

Moving forward means continuing to be a part of the program that helps them bring joy to people’s lives. As Ohmart said, they’re all in prison because they did something that took away from people. This program is one of the few things they can do while incarcerated that helps give back.

“It’s amazing. It’s life changing. It brought light into my life at prison,” said Suzanne Miles, who’s been part of the program for seven years. At the time of the graduation, she was paired with Radar, the program’s 100th puppy, and the 50th puppy Miles has worked with.

And for Ohmart, who is dedicated not just to the puppies but to the women, watching them succeed is what drives her.

“You do see so much change in the women, and you see so much growth in them. That, for me, is really what keeps me going. I love that and I love to see them grow so much,” she said. “I think you can reach people with animals in ways that you can’t necessarily do just by yourself. I think this program definitely reflects that.”

To show Ohmart just how much they appreciate her, the handlers each decorated a page in a scrapbook that they presented to her at the graduation. She accepted their praise for a moment, but was quick to turn the attention back around to all of their hard work.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dogs trained by inmates from Coffee Creek sit during the graduation of service dogs at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

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