Prison dog training program changing lives

A Braithwaite woman never thought she could have a productive life. She thought a birth defect and violence had ended her hopes and dreams.

BRAITHWAITE, La. -- A Braithwaite woman never thought she could have a productive life. She thought a birth defect and violence had ended her hopes and dreams.

Then, the dedication of a man who moved here after Hurricane Katrina, along with prisoners and the unconditional love of a four-legged friend, changed her life.

Dozzer the chocolate Labrador retriever picks up a spoon that has fallen on the floor in the kitchen of Jen Lopez's home. She was born blind with a condition called Iris Coloboma.

"They told my parents I would never see that, you know, I would be completely blind. But the doctors can't understand or explain how I have the sight that I do have today," said Lopez.

At only 30, she now also has a rapidly progressing form of glaucoma and can only see blurred shapes and colors. She knew one day she would need a service dog, but never imagined there would be another reason to need one.

"It can be a spiral that can drag you down and make you not even want to leave your own house. The fear, the emotions that come with it just race through you and it just overwhelms you," said Lopez.

Lopez was also diagnosed with PTSD. At 22, she was the victim of a violent crime. She thought a service dog was out of her financial reach. Then her counselor went online and found DoggoneExpress, Inc.

Bill Barse started the nonprofit program that he says saves paws and souls. He rescues shelter dogs and has prison inmates train them. He has placed nearly 200 dogs. Months ago, an urgent call came from the St. Tammany Shelter about a Chocolate Lab.

"He's real high active. He jumps. He's plays. He's got no training whatsoever," Barse remembers the shelter officer telling him about Dozzer.

"When I met Dozzer, it was love at first sight. He obeyed me immediately," said Lopez, who had to take a cab from Plaquemines Parish to St. Tammany Parish to meet him.

Lopez was taught how to continue Dozzer's training after he left basic training from inmates. He will help guide her. He picks up things she can't find, and he is learning block and cover. It's a way to guard her if she feels scared.

"He's made a very, very dramatic difference in my life. I feel safer. I haven't had any PTSD spirals," she said.

Somehow Dozzer knows something's wrong, even if Lopez is crying over a TV show. He immediately comforts her.

Lopez isn't the only one whose life was saved by this new relationship. So was Dozzer's. He was two hours away from being euthanized in a shelter only because he didn't have a family who loved him.

Lopez is spending her time painting. She is also getting a college degree on line in English literature. She also has a romance novel 'Unbreakable Love' set in Louisiana bayou area, coming out in the fall. She writes under the name Jenn Marie.

She wants others with obstacles to know they can move forward too, and is thankful for the help of others.

"I truly believe God above has put you in my life," she read from a letter she wrote to Barse.

Dozzer was trained by inmates through a program with the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office. Shelter dogs are also trained at two other Louisiana state prisons.

For more or to donate to the program to train and place dogs, click here.
For more on the novel by "Jenn Marie," click here.


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