By Lt. Edgar Garcia
Christmas arrived early this year for the staff and inmates at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility’s (RJD) dog-training program with the birth of nine wiggly and warm puppies. On Wednesday, Dec. 18, Patches, a black Labrador retriever, delivered a litter of nine pups at RJD’s Minimum Support Facility.
Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles & Creating Hope (POOCH) is a service dog training program sponsored by CDCR in conjunction with the San Diego-based non-profit organization Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs (TLCAD).
The POOCH program provides CDCR offenders with an opportunity to provide a valuable service to the community by training dogs to become service animals for children with autism or veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Specially selected and trained inmates raise and train the dogs to perform tasks such as opening doors, retrieving and carrying objects, turning lights on and off, and providing calming behaviors in the presence of a triggering event.
Started at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in 2014, the POOCH service dog training program has now expanded to include a puppy birthing program as well as additional training locations at Mule Creek State Prison and the Brig at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Inmate Steven Gill is one of the POOCH puppy birthing program participants at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
“I’m a dog lover; so, I was excited to participate in the program,” Gill said. “I’ve been incarcerated for 10 years and this gave me an opportunity to do something to help someone else.”
The mission of the program is personal to Gill. “I have a member of my family who lives with autism. It means a lot to me to give back,” he explained.
Along with TCLAD staff and a licensed veterinarian, inmate participants care for the dogs during their pregnancy and assist the animals through their labor and delivery. A first-time mother, Patches delivered five female and four male puppies. TCLAD staff and inmate participants have the honor of naming each of the puppies as they are born. “I wanted to name them after Santa’s reindeer,” said Suzanne Eriqat Veta, Training Manager for Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs. “However, our program partners require us to name them using a common letter of the alphabet.” The nine puppies: Nacho, Nelly, Nippsy, Nora, Nikki, Nugget, Nadia, Ninja and Noelle will stay with their inmate trainers at RJD’s Minimum Support Facility for 8-12 weeks and be given basic leash and potty training.
Once ready, the puppies will be transferred to one of the partner locations to begin their service dog training – a holiday gift that is sure to be meaningful for years to come.