New Life K9s service dog-in-training Jacki enjoys her Puppy Raiser's yard Credit: Courtesy|Tatum Stein

Luis Venegas was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison when he was 15 years old. He was moved to the California Men’s Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo in 2016, where he began volunteering with New Life K9 — an organization that trains service dogs for veterans and first responders who suffer from PTSD.

After being released on parole in 2019, Venegas continued to work with the program, eventually taking on the role of CMC Puppy Raiser Coordinator. Venegas said the program significantly helps the veterans and first responders.

“The goal of the program, especially the prison program, is to save as many lives as they can,” Venegas said. “A big part of that is providing service dogs to veterans and first responders, and we’ve heard from our recipients that it makes a difference, and saves their lives in a big way.”

Not only does the program benefit the veterans and first responders who will receive the dogs, but it changes the lives of the inmate handlers who work with them, according to Venegas.

Inmates in CMC can apply to become inmate handlers, Venegas said. Once selected to be part of the program, the inmate is assigned a dog, who they will be responsible for 24 hours of the day.

The dogs learn many of their skills just from following the inmates through their day-to-day life. 

“We are constantly teaching them manners and behaviors,” Venegas said. “Whether that’s just walking outside to use the restroom, taking a walk or brushing our teeth — we are constantly talking to them and educating then on how to behave in those situations.”

The dogs also receive training sessions with the inmates throughout the day to teach them more specific skills such as helping someone up who has fallen or opening doors.

Audio by Amanda Wernik

Venegas said that New Life K9s does not use traditional training methods in teaching the dogs. Instead of a reward-based system where the dog learns to do skills for treats, this program aims to help the dogs understand why they are performing these specific tasks to allow them to think for themselves.

“What we found when we use treats is that when you don’t give the dogs a treat when they don’t do something right, sometimes they don’t understand what they’re doing wrong, and they get very stressed about it,” Venegas said.

Instead, New Life K9s uses praise and encouragement to assure the dogs that they are doing things right, Venegas said.

“It’s not that we don’t give them treats, but we give them treats just because they’re cool to give treats to, it’s natural to share with them,” Venegas said.

Aside from the benefits that veterans and first responders receive from this program, the impact that the program has on the inmates, and the institutions at large, is huge according to Venegas.

“For many of us, we grew up in prison. A big part of that is emotionally shutting down for long periods of time, decades even,” Venegas said. “Having the companionship and the responsibility of another living being teaches us to be vulnerable and emotional again. It’s hard to be the tough guy when you have a 10 week old puppy wagging its tail at you.”

“Having the companionship and the responsibility of another living being teaches us to be vulnerable and emotional again. It’s hard to be the tough guy when you have a 10 week old puppy wagging its tail at you.”

Another former inmate Solomon Kim was moved to CMC in 2015, and he joined New Life K9s as an inmate handler in 2016. He worked for the program for about two years, and he attested to the huge impact that the dogs have on inmates.

“In a way they teach us how to love again, and to show that love and not be afraid,” Kim said. “It teaches us a great lesson about love and hope, and it’s something I wish everyone could experience.”

When the dogs are not working with the inmates or training, volunteer puppy raisers from the public can take home the dogs to help socialize them with people, other dogs and the outside world.

Agricultural business senior Tatum Stein and business administration senior Sara Glaser take home dogs from the program for a few days at a time. Volunteers can sign up to take the dogs home via an application on their website.

Stein said that once the dogs reach a certain age, they can go outside of the prisons, but they need to learn social skills. 

“They go on walks, and they see the real world. They go into grocery stores and have to interact with other dogs and people,” Stein said. “That’s my part right now, we get to snuggle and socialize a lot.”

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Video by Brady Caskey

The volunteers who take the dogs home receive and write letters to the inmate handlers, and Glaser said that she can tell just how much the inmates care about their dogs through the way they write about them. 

“Before I did this program, I kind of had this mindset that if someone was in prison for something they did that was really bad, they deserved to be there for a long time, they’re bad people, that’s who they are, they can’t change,” Glaser said. “Now, my mindset has completely turned around. It’s amazing how much love and compassion these inmates have.”

Stein said how the program helps to combat the stigma surrounding veterans and first responders with PTSD.

“The dogs really help to take the pressure off the veterans or first responders when they’re having a tough time,” Stein said.

The students also said how caring for the dogs has impacted their own personal mental health during quarantine. 

“Just having dog energy around when you’re on Zoom, or grinding through books or doing homework is huge,” Stein said. “It’s been a good few weeks with these puppies around. They really are the most loving, supportive animals.”

Veterans or first responders with PTSD may be eligible to receive a dog from New Life K9 on their website.

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