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School's in for newest digger dog graduates

Issued: 11 February 2014
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The three newest adopted dogs to graduate from Bathurst Correctional Centre's 'Dogs For Diggers' program have visited a local school to hone their skills before being handed over to injured soldiers.

The Member for Bathurst Paul Toole said, "I am proud that such an innovative, Australian-first program was started in Bathurst and that it will provide great benefits in helping veterans, inmates and unwanted dogs."

The innovative program using inmates to train assistance dogs is providing new hope for injured Australian diggers and gaining the support of the local community including special needs students at Carenne School.

Inmate trainers today took border collie cross Jesse, German Shepard cross Duke and Kelpie cross Tilly to the school to visit students and tell them about safe dog handling techniques. The children also welcomed back labrador-cross husky Bonza, who was named by a local girl as part of a competition last year.

Bathurst Correctional Centre’s General Manager Bill Fittler said the dogs made weekly visits to Carenne and local shopping centres as part of their training.

"The dogs are taken by the inmates to Carenne School, nursing homes and local shopping centres to complete 45 hours training in high distraction areas," Mr Fittler said.

"These community visits prepare the dogs to act appropriately when they are confronted with food, smells and large crowds of people. This training is crucial to their preparation to become therapy dogs for soldiers."

The program utilised carefully selected minimum security inmates to transform ill and mistreated canines into highly trained dogs, which are then handed over to injured diggers.

"This wonderful six-month program rehabilitates inmates, unwanted or neglected dogs, and traumatised returned servicemen and women," Mr Fittler said.

The Dogs for Diggers program began in September 2012 in partnership with Young Diggers, a non-profit veteran welfare group that provides support to returned Australian service personnel and their families. Young Diggers refers suitable recipients to the Dogs for Diggers program.

Young Diggers President John Jarrett, who this week is collecting canine Jesse for a digger, said everyone involved in the program receives significant benefits.

"The dogs reduce the diggers' stress and anxiety, improve their psychological and emotional state, break down the barriers of isolation and loneliness and restore confidence," Mr Jarrett said.

"The inmate handlers often meet the veterans at a three-day handover where the inmates teach the diggers the appropriate commands and any special needs of their new assistance dog."

Mr Jarrett will deliver Jesse to an injured soldier. Jesse was found under a fence during a storm by an East Timor veteran, who donated her to the program after hearing about it.

Mr Fittler said the high point of this program is the emotional handover. "This is when the diggers finally receive their long-awaited canine companions and the inmates realise the huge positive impact they've made to the diggers' lives.

"This program's success is thanks largely to the ongoing support and sponsorship of Mars Petcare, who continue to provide food for our dogs."