Inmates train homeless pups to be service dogs

When someone is diagnosed with a brain or emotional disorder, the dream of an independent life can be shattered.

ST. GABRIEL, La. -- When someone is diagnosed with a brain or emotional disorder, the dream of an independent life can be shattered.

But one man who saw the Hurricane Katrina destruction from afar on TV moved to southeast Louisiana to make a difference. Now he's changing the lives of people and man's best friend.

Jeanie remembers the day her daughter Maggie was diagnosed with autism.

"You don't quite understand the size of it. You know it's big, but you don't know exactly what it means," said Jeanie, who is from Baton Rouge. The family did not want to use its last name.

The other four children are adjusting to loss of attention, pain and wounds, but their parents believe their sister's condition will enrich them significantly.

"I really trust that God that has a greater purpose for her life and for our life as a family," she said.

Bill Barse also sees a greater purpose not only for Maggie, but shelter dogs set to be euthanized for lack of love, and convicted felons who can feel undeserving of love.

"This is a mission and this mission is to save paws and to save souls," said Bill Barse, Founder of DoggoneExpress, a non-profit that has programs including "The Big House to Your House' and "Companions for Life."

Bill works in commercial real estate, but when he saw Hurricane Katrina images on TV, he moved to Louisiana from the Washington D.C. area to help. He never left.

He started a program at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel and two other prisons, where homeless dogs are paired with offenders, convicted of manslaughter, murder and armed robbery. He not only trained them to be dog trainers so they could learn a trade for life after prison, but so people with mental and physical disabilities could get service dogs free.

Today is Maggie's turn. She dances and squeals with excitement as the dogs come up to her and nuzzle her face.

"I think that what a dog offers is love and friendship and relationship without the stress that often all of us, in our human way with too many words and too many demands, can put on her," said her mother.

Same emotions for the women who are not free.

"I call them 'miracle canines' because I get to give back to a child, a mother, a brother, an uncle, veterans, who suffer and struggle with life challenges everyday, because these dogs make a difference in their lives," said Tresheen Wilson of Algiers who is serving a 15-year sentence for armed robbery.

"It's taught me to be patient. I had to learn patience, more compassion, caring and loving. It's brought out a lot of character and qualities in myself," said Alisha, who is serving a manslaughter sentence.

"Oh my God, you're really in my room," Susan Arthur remembers saying about the first dog she trained. She is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. "You're talking to somebody who's been locked up for eight years already and hadn't touched a dog or anything. I mean, this is a blessing for us and it's a privilege and an honor and not something any of us would take for granted."

What's different about this program from others, is it's the first time families, the public, are allowed to go inside the prison to interact. Eventually, the offenders will be the ones teaching the families how to continue the training of their new dogs.

"I can show my son that I'm doing something to better my life," Wilson said with tears streaming down her face.

"To be given the opportunity to do something meaningful for someone else, is a gift in and of itself," Arthur said.

It's a gift she could otherwise never give anyone on the outside, as she serves life behind bars.

Dogs will also be trained to help people with PTSD, anxiety, brain injury, depression, deafness and as therapy and companion dogs.

Maggie's family is deciding which dog will be the best fit for her.

Barse also wants to start dog grooming in the prisons to teach the offenders another vocational skill.

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