Five puppies were raised by California prison inmates. Now they’re certified service dogs.

After two years in a maximum-security cell, Dean the yellow Labrador recently received his diploma from Mule Creek State Prison, leaving his cellmate and trainer David Navarro behind.

A 62-year-old inmate serving a life sentence, Navarro will “miss the hell out of him,” but Dean is moving on to a new occupation: He’ll work as a service dog in a Chico public elementary school, helping at-risk kids affected by the 2018 Camp Fire focus in class, take tests and stay in school.

Dean was one of five Labradors and golden retrievers graduating the morning of July 26 from Mule Creek’s Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles & Creating Hope program — POOCH for short.

This restorative justice program was founded by the San Diego nonprofit Tender Loving Canine Assistance Dogs, which has since paired a handful of 8-weeks-old pups and well-behaved inmates every year to undergo custom service-dog training in correctional facilities across the state.

The program may reduce recidivism in inmate populations, according to a 2019 report by the American Correctional Association. And any of Mule Creek’s 4,000-plus male inmates on good behavior can be selected to participate — even murderers, said Angelo Gonzalez, a spokesman for the prison.

Since the program’s inception in 2007, approximately 75 inmates have participated, said Nicole Maples, the lead trainer from TLCAD stationed in the prison. The Mule Creek POOCH program was the first of its kind at a maximum-security prison in the state.

Inmates and POOCH staff train dogs like Dean through food-motivated positive reinforcement techniques, teaching them more than 30 tricks or “cues” that are personalized to assist clients with different needs. TLCAD spokeswoman Fara Khaleeli said service dog recipients range from veterans with PTSD and individuals on the autism spectrum to facilities like a courthouse or, in Dean’s case, a school.

For example, a dog intended for a veteran will learn how to help brace an older person with mobility issues, Maples said. And a dog going to an individual with autism will learn how to perform deep pressure therapy sessions instead.

A facility dog like Dean has to learn a more complicated mix, having to interact with many different personalities, Maple said. Dean can now “visit” kids by running to their side while maintaining direct eye contact with his trainer, or “snuggle” by curling up around them. He can also break the ice, meeting fist bumps with his nose and high-fiving children with his paws.

About three-quarters of POOCH dogs master their cues on schedule and make it to graduation, according to Khaleeli. The less subordinate bunch is gifted on a rotating basis to the more than 4,000 aspiring owners on their waiting list.

Dean received his certificate with his fellow graduates an hour southeast of Sacramento on Highway 104 at Mule Creek’s A yard, where trainers and clients met for the first time to officiate the transition and share stories about their furry friends.

The inmates who participated in the program said it taught them valuable life skills.

“Dean taught me that I’m not the only one on Earth,” said Dean’s trainer Navarro at the ceremony. “He was like my teacher. He taught me how to interact with different people.”

“This has been the most formative thing I’ve done in the 25 years I’ve been in prison,” said Chad Smith, another participating inmate. “This program exemplifies restorative justice.”

One trainer, Ramiro Hernandez, applies the life skills he learned during POOCH to his own life and family, his wife Bridgitte Hernandez said. He uses positive reinforcement to remotely raise their 8-year-old son Ramiro Jr.

Joshua Thomas, an inmate still in the process of training one of 21 dogs currently in the facility, said living with a dog has helped him manage his anger and anxiety. Thomas was incarcerated for murder and says he’s since suffered symptoms of PTSD. But when his dog Bolt practices his deep pressure therapy cues and lies on his chest, his feelings become manageable.

Joshua Thomas, a prisoner at Mule Creek State Prison gets some love from “Bolt” a service dog in training during a graduation ceremony for service dogs trained by inmates at Mule Creek State Prison, Friday, July 26, 2019. Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com

Since graduating dogs are connected two months in advance with their clients, many have already made an impact in their future communities, according to their new owners.

“The time you are spending teaching these dogs cues — it’s more than just cues and tricks,” said Suzanne Schults, family crimes coordinator at the San Joaquin County Family Justice Center and recipient of 2019 graduate Lavender, at the ceremony. “You’re truly transforming lives.”

Schults said Lavender has supported more than 25 victims of trafficking and sexual violence during her first two months of work.

Another graduate, Duke, demonstrated his skills by sitting through forensic interviews with young children at Sutter County Victim Services as a children advocacy facility dog, according to program manager Missy Castillo.

Service dog, “Duke” rests under his trainer’s legs, as Mike Owens, an inmate at Mule Creek State Prison, sits during a graduation ceremony for service dogs, Friday, July 26, 2019. Duke will work with children in the Child Advocacy Center and in court with the Sutter County Victim Services. Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com

Ione and Sutter were trained as Leash-on-Life dogs, providing services to two young men on the autism spectrum. The mothers of both recipients read their sons’ letters at the ceremony, thanking the inmates for their hard work.

“I don’t like going out a lot but having Ione helps,” one of the recipients wrote. “Before I got Sutter, I was scared of going anywhere in public,” the other wrote. “Sutter helps me access the community and make new friends.”

Dean hasn’t really begun work, since school starts in mid-August. But school Principal Shanon Payne said he has already met preschoolers enrolled in a summer program and is keeping his cues fresh by visiting convalescent homes.

Payne said the school expects Dean’s presence to increase attendance rates and reduce suspensions. “We feel very, very fortunate for our school community to have an additional support on campus,” Payne said. “We’re hoping to have him for eight to 10 years.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.
Elliot Wailoo, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in prison systems, police, and education. He is originally from New Jersey.