Springtime ushers in graduation ceremonies of all kinds, but one of the more unusual took place Wednesday at the Maryville Treatment Center, a state prison east of town housing inmates convicted of crimes involving various kinds of substance abuse.
For the past year MTC has been working in cooperation with the New Nodaway Humane Society in implementing a local Puppies for Parole program, in which prisoners serve as obedience trainers for shelter dogs.
On Wednesday, a one-year anniversary reception was held at the prison for both inmate-trainers and a few of the dogs who have recently completed the program.
A total of 19 animals have gone through MTC's Puppies for Parole since the initiative began 12 months ago. All but two successfully completed the eight-week training and received American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certification.
Eighteen members of the inaugural "class" have been placed in permanent homes, and only "Falcon," a blind black lab mix, remains unadopted
According to Missouri Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi, who traveled from Jefferson City to attend the reception, Puppies for Parole has proven successful not only in Maryville but statewide.
So far, he said, prisoners have trained more than 1,500 dogs at 19 of the state's 20 correctional institutions.
"The impact has been extraordinary," said Lombardi, who is pushing to expand the program to embrace higher-level training required for service dogs capable of providing emotional therapy for residents of veterans homes, mental health centers and long-term care facilities.
One such facility now under development is the Comtrea Inc. health center in Hillsboro, a small town in Jefferson County south of St. Louis. The center, located on 47 acres, will provide animal therapy using both dogs and horses to disabled veterans and children coping with autism, mental illness and post-traumatic stress.
All of the dogs will come from Puppies for Parole, according to Comtrea's Judy Finnegan.
Finnegan, formerly of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, thanked the trainer-inmates for their hard work, telling them that they had quite probably saved the lives of the 19 dogs in the MTC program.
"You established trust, and you gave them the opportunity to be a valued member of a family," Finnegan said. "Thank you."
The group of inmate trainers attending the event put their dogs, including Falcon, through their paces before a crowd of about 40 visitors and dignitaries. Each animal flawlessly — well, almost flawlessly — followed a series of verbal commands to stay, come, sit, lay and shake hands.
Falcon's trainer said teaching his sightless dog to lay down was almost impossible until he figured out how vulnerable the animal must feel.
"I became Falcon's eyes," he said. "I made sure she didn't hit her head or anything. ... He is a sweet, loving dog, and as you can see he loves to eat. I'm grateful for all the things he has taught me, which is discipline and lots of patience."
Page 2 of 2 - One of the beneficiaries of Puppies for Parole is MTC Warden Sonny Collins, who adopted "Duchess," one of the first dogs to complete the program.
"She's wonderful, and my wife loves her," Collins said. "She's a swell pet."