Issued: Friday 28 October 2016
A unique Corrective Services NSW program where inmates train dogs to be companion animals for war veterans, is also improving communication skills and movement skills for elderly people and children with a disability.
The Dogs for Diggers program at Bathurst Correctional Centre, in the state’s Central West, has rescued more than 40 abandoned dogs, trained them with inmates and then given them to former soldiers with physical and mental health problems.
Over the past two years, inmates have trained more than 40 dogs, with each dog and trainer team also visiting residents and students at three nursing homes and two specialist schools during the six months training program.
Corrective Services Officer Chantelle Raso, who runs the Defence Bank-funded program said the daily school and nursing home visits had been a great by-product of Dogs for Diggers.
“It’s amazing, as some of the elderly residents have dementia and don’t move all day, but when they see the dogs their faces just light up,” Ms Raso said.
“Just to sit with the dogs, pat them and talk to them really makes their day, because in some cases we are their only visitors. It doesn’t only promote communication skills and movement in the elderly, it also helps children with high needs.
“We had one boy who was in a wheelchair, who saw the dogs and - for the first time - moved his hands simultaneously. You should have seen the smile on everyone’s faces. It was unbelievable.
“These visits also bring out the inmates’ compassionate and empathetic side.”
The eight dogs and their trainers are housed in a minimum-security facility. Dog trainer Teneka Priestly, who has been working with canines for the past 20 years, said they put the inmates through an interview process and a trial period.
“It’s very mentally-hard training, with lots of theory, so they need to be dedicated to ensure the dogs are advancing and that they’re learning about their dog’s behaviour and language,” Ms Priestly said.
“They teach the dogs basic obedience training and advanced assistance-dog work that includes knowing how to get on an elevator, being around shopping trolleys and not being tempted to sniff the food in a supermarket.”
Once the training is complete, the inmates spend one week with the veterans doing a handover process with the dogs. By then the dogs are trained to open doors, switch on lights, unzip clothing and even take clothing out of the wash so they can assist the veterans with daily tasks.