Dixon dogs ‘graduate’ to serve humans

Advocate staff photo by JAMES MINTON -- Dixon Correctional Institute inmate Raymond Franco hugs Valdez after the potential companion animal-in-training  followed Franco's command to put his paws in Franco's lap on Friday. Franco and three other DCI trusties have spent 17 months preparing three dogs for a second round of training by Canine Companions for Independence to work with adults or children with disabilities. The inmates also welcomed three puppies making up the second training class for the nonprofit organization at DCI.
Advocate staff photo by JAMES MINTON -- Dixon Correctional Institute inmate Raymond Franco hugs Valdez after the potential companion animal-in-training followed Franco's command to put his paws in Franco's lap on Friday. Franco and three other DCI trusties have spent 17 months preparing three dogs for a second round of training by Canine Companions for Independence to work with adults or children with disabilities. The inmates also welcomed three puppies making up the second training class for the nonprofit organization at DCI.

The first three graduates of a companion animal training program at Dixon Correctional Institute are ready for finishing school in Orlando, Fla., to become loyal helpers for people with disabilities.

Living next to their inmate trainers in a dormitory housing trusties at the Jackson prison, the three dogs arrived as puppies 17 months ago and were taught basic obedience and responses to some 30 commands, Warden Steve Rader said.

They also were socialized through contact with other inmates and visits to homes outside the prison.

Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization, has 12 basic training programs in prisons across the country, said LeAnn Siefferman, who manages CCI’s “puppy program” for the Southeastern United States.

“Prison programs have the most success because the inmates have more time to train them,” Siefferman said. “My experience with Dixon has been phenomenal.”

Col. John Smith, who oversees all of DCI’s canine programs, including an animal shelter that takes in strays, said the dogs are with their trainers “24/7” just as they will one day be with a person needing a companion animal.

Inmates James Ficco, Clifford Matten and Raymond Franco put their students — Ventura, Trump and Valdez — through their paces for several visitors Friday, including Baton Rouge lawyer Gwen Harmon.

Harmon and her husband train companion dogs, and she brought her latest student, Tater, to the prison Friday. She was instrumental in getting DCI involved in the program, Siefferman said.

The inmates also introduced the next trainees, one of which arrived Friday.

Franco said he is going to miss his dog, Valdez.

“He became a part of me,” Franco said, adding that working with a new puppy will help him overcome the loss.

“He won’t exactly make it the same, but we’ll try to make the same bond,” Franco said.

Master Sgt. Keavin Tanner, the inmate trainers’ direct supervisor, said he has been involved with canine programs at DCI for 21 years, but this is the first one that lets prisoners help people outside of the prison.

Inmates typically have little self-discipline and low self-esteem, but training the dogs is helping change the trainers’ lives, he said.

“Their self-esteem is through the roof,” Tanner said.

Inmate Joseph Coon worked with all three dogs any time that Ficco, Matten and Franco were unavailable for one reason or another.

Trump was his favorite of the three.

“He’s the most driven. He has more discipline,” Coon said.

“I think it’s a blessing to be a part of this because they take a group of individuals who had a negative influence on society and put us in a position to make a positive influence on the life of someone in need,” Coon said.

Siefferman said the dogs’ Orlando training could include learning tasks such as removing a person’s sock, retrieving items dropped on the floor, opening refrigerator doors and removing specific items, turning lights on and off and pulling wheelchairs with a harness.