Inmates train service dogs in Sonoma County

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A special graduation ceremony will be held Thursday in Santa Rosa, for two canine graduates who've been in lock-up for eight months.

"The morale among the inmates has gone up, tensions gone down," Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Vallelunga told KTVU, as the Labrador retrievers named Otis and Neville practiced their skills, opening doors and cabinets, retrieving items, and turning on light switches.  

The pups came, at three months old, to the North County Detention Facility, a minimum security jail housing about four hundred non-violent offenders.

They are being trained to serve as companion animals for people with disabilities.  

"These dogs need to learn how to care for another person at some point, " inmate Jay Parsegian told KTVU, as he hugged and petted Otis.

"For us, it's something you can't really get in an institution, it's genuine love and care. This dog, every day, loves us."

The program is in its second year, a partnership between the Corrections Dept. and the Bergin University for Canine Studies, which provides the dogs.

"It's not just about the inmates, its about the community, " Sheriff's Lt. Peter Skinner told KTVU, "and we definitely see, in the units the dogs are housed in, there's a lessening of tensions, it feels more normal." 

For the handlers, it's a full-time job. The dogs live in the dormitory-style units. They sleep, eat, and spend every minute with their handlers, who have nothing but time to give them. There were some hurdles, like how to let a dog out for a potty break, when every door is locked.     

"There were some people who were kind of skeptical of the program, but once it started everyone fell in love with it very quickly," observed Deputy Valllelunga, who has been overseeing the project from the start. 

Inmate-trainer Chris Matheson has almost two years left in his jail sentence, and hopes to be paired with another dog, once these two graduate.

"It's a lot of responsibility," he admitted, "and learning new things, so it will probably be a changing point in my life."

Parsegian and Matheson were screened and selected as handlers, among many inmates who applied. 

"I thought it was a good way to give back to the community, do something positive for a change, and feel good about myself and make others feel good about me," shared Parsegian, who will be released from jail in just a few weeks.

The dogs, young and sometimes distractable, require patience, a quality inmates may not have, starting out.

But the men are learning life skills too. 

"I teach them about positive reinforcement and that doesn't just work with dogs," explained Laurel Scarioni of Bergin University,, based in Rohnert Park. 

"I've had inmates say to me, 'wow what you're telling me would work for my kids too!'"

The dogs will go back to Bergin University for more advanced training, and two more dogs will be assigned jail time.

"It's sad, we're gong to miss them, and they'll miss us," admitted Parsegian. 

But all four will be better off for the experience.

"It's great to have a companion in here, someone to love and someone to love us."