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Service Dogs Changing Lives Of Children, Inmates

5:07 PM, Sep 9, 2013   |    comments
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Beth Dodd was a 20-year-old drug addict when she caused a car accident that killed one person and injured another.

She had a lot of time to think about that while spending more than a decade in prison, a lot of time struggling to find a purpose and direction for her life. Things began to change when she started training dogs for special needs kids.

Released from prison this summer, she watched with a smile Sunday as the service dogs were paired with the children who need them in so many ways. She thinks they helped her at least as much as they will help the kids.

"Being in prison breaks your spirit, but these dogs bring it back," Dodd said. "It makes you feel like you're part of the world again and there's still hope."

The K-9s 4 Kids program officially presented dogs to six families at the event. One dog was trained to smell when a diabetic child's blood sugar was too low. Another rose to brace a child who had balance problems.

It's not cheap. Each of the dogs cost $23,000 to train, program director Frances McGowin said. But they're donated to the families at no cost.

One of them went to Elijah Mendez, a 10-year-old with Asperger syndrome. His father, Chris Mendez, said Elijah had spent much of his life in a shell, unable to express himself, or play or laugh. Then came a series of emotional meltdowns.

"All of my emotions that I held in, something would happen at school and it would just make them crack," Elijah said. "Crack open."

That ended when he met his dog, Emma.

"He plays, he laughs," Chris Mendez said. "He tells me about his day at school. None of that ever happened, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"I feel like (the program) has given me my son back. It's given him a chance at life and a chance to be whatever he wants to be and the confidence to do it."

The K-9 for Kids dogs are trained in by prison inmates, who . They live with the inmates in their dormitory or cells. According to the program's website, the inmates "benefit from taking responsibility for training a dog, feeding and caring for the a dog, and learning to love, sometimes for the first time in their lives."

Prior to placement, the dog lives with a transitional trainer, who evaluates, trains, socializes and transitions the dog to his new home. The website states the training process can last anywhere from one to two years, depending on how quickly the dog learns and matures.

McGowin said more than 20 people are involved with the training and placement of each dog, and all of them have similar stories of the positive impact the dogs have on their lives.

She said that the impact on the prison system alone is significant because no prisoner involved with the program has ever been re-arrested.

"Think about the impact that has on the inmates' family, their children, court costs, prison costs and lowering the prison population," McGowin said.

Dodd has seen that life-changing process firsthand.

"It's really no surprise to me that everyone who participates in the program does not come back to prison because it teaches you to be a part of something bigger, to let go of what you want and focus on what's good for everyone," Dodd said.

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