OUR OPINION: Hot dog! Puppies for Parole a success

The wag of a tail or a playful bark can turn a terrible day on its ear.

Our dogs are thrilled to see us each time we walk in the door. They don't care how clean our home is, how much money we make or what our work day was like.

They just love us unconditionally.

Since 2010, a program in the Missouri Department of Corrections has tapped into the symbiotic relationship we share with dogs.

Puppies for Parole, a Re-Entry program of the Corrections Department, allows inmates to train "unadoptable" dogs from rescue shelters. Most of the dogs have anxiety or behavior issues and are in need of a second chance.

"We're taking dogs who have become unadoptable because of their circumstances and the situations that they've been put in, and we're putting them with offenders who are looking for second chances, who are looking to be better," said Jennifer Liebi, the statewide Puppies for Parole coordinator. "Meshing those two together has been life-changing -- not only for the dogs, but for the offenders here."

Sixteen Missouri prisons offer the program, which may have 10-15 dogs at a prison at any given time. Offenders have trained approximately 7,000 dogs since it began in 2010.

Once in the prison, the dogs are assigned primary and secondary handlers, and the 10-week training program begins. The dogs stay in their handler's cell, which has a large kennel. Handlers are responsible for feeding, walking, training and letting the dogs outside.

"They train these dogs, they love them, they socialize them," Liebi said, "and it's not only giving dogs a second chance, these offenders are getting a second chance at doing and being something better than what brought them here."

For the dogs, the second chance can help land them in a home outside of prison where they can become a family's pet or it can open up a new career as a service dog. For some of the dogs, they are given to K9 for Camo, a Springfield-based nonprofit that pairs service dogs with veterans who may have PTSD, seizures, diabetes or mobility issues.

For the inmates, it gives them a companion and a purpose while they are in prison.

"These dogs have saved me," said Joe Denti, who is serving two life sentences for a pair of second-degree murders. "When you come into prison, it's a place without any hope. These dogs give us purpose."

Denti, who has been involved in the program for 13 years, said he gets a sense of pride and fulfillment from training dogs that go on to help others.

But the dogs and the Corrections program are helping the inmates, too.

"We're teaching empathy and compassion, which is something that a lot of these dog handlers didn't know anything about when they came in," Liebi said.

Corrections and the inmates deserve a pat on the back for this creative program that gives inmates and "unadoptable dogs" a second chance.

And while we're at it, let's give the dogs a "good boy" and a pat on the head for making a meaningful impact on the lives of Missourians inside and outside of prison.

-- News Tribune