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Pawsabilities Looking Up for Veterans, Inmates

Then & Now

By Judy Salamacha

W. Bruce Cameron, author of “A Dog’s Journey,” wrote, “You can usually tell that a man is good if he has a dog that loves him.”
Dogs have predicted earthquakes, detected cancer and signaled the early stages of labor. Thus, Rotarian Gil Igleheart became an instant advocate when U.S. Marine Capt. Jason Haag spoke at a Rotary Dist. 5240 meeting about a Florida group’s success rate training man’s best friend to help America’s war veterans to cope with combat-induced demons known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
It’s sobering news that 22 veterans commit suicide daily; that 11%-20% of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans suffer PTSD annually; and nightly, over 50,000 homeless in America are Veterans.
Igleheart decided if it worked in Florida, then it would certainly work in dog-friendly San Luis Obispo County. He enlisted fellow Cayucos Seaside Rotarian, Dick Mellinger, to help him gather the necessary pieces and players.
Critical to the success of the program was a certified dog training partner. Jack Gould’s nonprofit, New Life K9s, had graduated and placed support dogs with veterans based on training taught at Bergin University of Canine Studies.
Igleheart and Mellinger partnered with New Life K9s to seek more awareness and funding to train more dogs. Recently, their non-profit foundation, “Paws for a Cause,” was renamed “Pawsabilities for Veterans.”
In 2014, five support dogs were graduated. By 2016, 18 more dogs were in training with the development of an inmate training program.
Now in 2017, six dogs are due to graduate and at least 17 are in training.
A recent video of New Life K9s innovative program at the California Men’s Colony (CMC) was produced using footage shot by Dan Hartzell’s, Coast Union High School students and can be viewed online at: www.NEWLIFEK9S.org.
Moving testimonies in the film, demonstrate that the concept is functioning as it was hoped. Training recently began at the Correctional Training Facility at Salinas Valley Prison near Soledad.
“Our mission is saving lives through human-canine relationships,” Gould said. “We are the professional trainers, but credit must also go to Warden Josie Gastelo, Sheriff’s Lt. Nolan and our contributors for their support. The bonus for the inmate trainer has been a new sense of purpose.”
Nolen, a SLO County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue senior member, led the effort to approve the inmate education program at CMC. He said, “I’m a vet and all over this program. Some inmates haven’t petted a dog in 20 years. This has the potential to help the inmates as much as the veterans.”
New Life K9s Director of Training, Nicole Hern, said, “A dog helps decrease levels of anxiety by supporting numerous specific needs for their veteran owner/handler. Dogs can wake him up from a nightmare — even turn on lights, remind him to take medications on time — bring the medication to him and bark on command to warn off a potentially threatening stranger.”
“The success rate for graduation of more dogs has proven much higher,” Hern said after adding the Corrections Department’s training program.
The inmates volunteer. There are two full-time trainers with the dogs 24-hours a day. A separate dormitory houses the trainers and their dogs. “This is their job and they have the time,” she said. On weekends additional volunteer trainers take the dogs home for socialization they cannot get in prison.
Several inmate trainers testified as to the impact it has made in their lives. Wesley Bird said, “I don’t want being a murderer to define my life. Having Rusty is great, gives me some self-worth.”

Frankie Castillo believes he is “not so selfish” and wants to “help other people.” Rufus Williams admits his best teacher has been “a little dog named Nicole. The New Life K9s training has been instrumental to help me become a better human being,” and Williams said he’s developing skills. “I can go back out in society and get a job in an animal shelter.”
Hern added, “I wanted to work in the prison program because I believed the dog could save more than one life.”
Army veteran, Bruce Hulin, received his dog, “Nichols” at a Los Osos Rotary Club presentation, after Igleheart had presented at a previous club meeting and Past-President Shirley Hulin realized help for her husband’s PTSD symptoms.
Through a grant from the Nichols Foundation, wheelchair bound Bruce thanked all who helped. “Nichols will nudge me when I feel anxious,” he said. “He picks things up that I can’t reach and opens and closes doors with an attached rope. If I’m rolling around with bad dreams I’ll feel Nichols’ wet nose waking me up.”
“We have more plans in the works,” said Mellinger. For more information see: www.NEWLIFEK9S.org or Pawsabilities for Veterans at PO Box 955, San Luis Obispo, CA. For questions or to arrange for a presentation call Dick Mellinger at (574) 532-1291or email to: dick.mellinger@gmail.com.

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: judysalamacha@gmail.com or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

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