Author Note: This article has been updated from recently published LIVING LAVISHLY & INSPIRED HEALTH magazine that is distributed at the Inspired Health Expo at Madonna Inn March 23 & 24 and through Simply Clear Marketing http://www.simplyclearmarking.com
New Life K9s business model is dedicated to training and matching a receptive K9 to a human in crisis to modify immediate and long lasting results. Jack Gould is the founder of the program headquartered on Buckley Drive in San Luis Obispo. “We prepare dogs to be of service for Veterans or First Responders with Post Traumatic Stress. Nicole, Rosa and Courtney are the moving parts to make it work.”
For the past two to three years New Life K9s found training support at San Luis Obispo’s California Men’s Colony. Inmates who qualified for the program worked together in teams within a separate unit from the rest of the CMC population. And although New Life K9s original and still ongoing goal is to offer a second chance to humans who’ve earned it, early results confirm that positive interaction and multiple bonding experiences among humans and K9s equates to new life beginnings and the promise of successful future outcomes for all involved in the process.
A second graduation day was held June 6, 2018 at CMC proving beyond expectations that the program works. Participating teams demonstrated – over and over again the bonds created with the dogs and each other. The following is but a snapshot of a most inspirational day spent “inside” CMC. The graduates were Eddie, Hope & Josie trained by New Life K9s staff with support by volunteer inmate-handlers and “outside” weekend puppy raisers. Private funding by groups such as Rotary-founded Pawsabilities for Veterans plus two years of puppy training produced a capable rescue dog ready to give new life — healing and unconditional love to their matched Veteran and First Responder families.
Gould gives Warden Josie Gastelo credit for recognizing the potential of a partnership between New Life K9s and CMC. “Nicole attended a seminar back East and met Sister Pauline, the ‘godmother of the prison puppy program.’ Sister Pauline said she’d write a letter to CMC’s warden. Frankly, we didn’t expect anything to happen. New on the job Warden Josie discovered Sister Pauline’s letter unopened on her desk and she knew she could never ignore a nun’s letter.” In 2018 New Life K9s expanded to Salinas Valley Prison in Soledad.
Warden Gastelo opened the ceremonies. “It is unheard of – in fact crazy — for a parolee to request an extended stay in prison. Mike (Nelson) is delaying his parole to participate in today’s New Life K9s graduation ceremonies. Most prisons have training programs for no-kill rescue centers, but our program is different. We have Jack and Nicole and Lt. Noland running a successful program with no problems — no issues – only success.”
In fact, a behind the scenes story was circulating among the visitors and inmates. When some of the volunteer inmates announced they couldn’t live together peacefully in the CMC-West unit area or work with certain inmate-handlers that were from another other gang or ethnic background, Warden Josie told Lt. Noland to shut it down if they couldn’t make their peace. Faced with giving up their puppy-friends, order was instantly controlled and two years later working together grew into commaraderie and lifelong friendships.
When Nelson approached the podium approximately 50 visitors and 30 inmate-volunteer-handlers participating in the New Life K9s/CMC training program stood for an extended standing ovation. Nelson was the CMC primary handler for Eddie. After two years of 24-7 weekdays working with Eddie, he would complete the training process by formally giving up the leash to Greg, a former first responder serving San Luis Obispo County.
Working to get his emotions in check, Nelson said, “I’m not crazy to stay inside another day, but I really love Eddie. I wanted to show up for Eddie and be true to me. He’s a big part of my life — my walk. I came here (to prison) when I was fifteen to serve a life sentence because I did a lot of bad things to hurt a lot of people. I never could have imagined what Eddie would teach me. I met him August 12, 2016. He taught me to be more connected — to tap into my own senses — look around at perfection all around me. Training Eddie has opened doors to more experiences and opportunities to continue my path of healing after 20 years inside.” Mike’s next journey would begin the following day heading to northern California to complete a six-month transitional program with two job opportunities pending. Note: Mike has completed his transitional programs and is working with other inmates to help their transitions as well as New Life K9s prison programs.
Nelson introduced Lt. Patrick Noland, “We call him ‘The Dog Father.’ He makes sure the program works – anything from purchasing the dog toys to taking their temperature if they get sick.” Lt. Noland is Program Liaison serving on New Life K9s Advisory Board. Noland served ten years with the U.S. Navy completing three combat duties. In a New Life K9 newsletter Nelson wrote, “Lt. Patrick Noland has dealt with death, seen his military brothers commit suicide and has witnessed a number of evils that Noland attributes to himself and to others. He also deals with his own PTSD, a truth that he remained in denial of for over 25 years.”
Lt. Noland, a big man, stepped up to offer a few words with even bigger emotions. “I have PTSD myself. This program got me through my angry bursts the last couple of years. These are all my dogs so I can’t retire.” Referencing the style of training used by New Life K9s, he added, “I’ve trained dogs for 15 years, but I’ve changed my philosophy how to train since working with Nicole. New Life K9s works.”
The Bond-Based Choice Teaching method was demonstrated by current K9s 2-months to 18-months into training and their Inmate-handlers. The method was developed by Jennifer Arnold & Canine Assistants. Inmate-Handler Kristopher remarked, “We don’t push. We show them. We have to learn patience. We want them to want to do it on their own.”
Time and space does not allow the glowing remarks of other handlers about their K9 buddies, however, a few remarks including:
Richie said, “Hope…taught me love and forgiveness — love and trust…learning that helping others is a beautiful thing.”
Kristopher said, “Josie ‘s best quality was her sense of what is needed. She just knew how to perform it.”
Raymond’s PTSD after serving in Iraq was complicated by alcoholism. “Not addressing my weakness soon enough got me into trouble and landed me here at CMC. Josie taught me how to open my soul. Since working with Josie I have no nightmares about the war. I’m proud of myself today.”
New Life K9s Education Director Nicole Hern provided a new insight about the program. “We all knew we were here to thank, honor and support our servicemen, but we didn’t realize the impact the program would have for the handlers. It is an honor watching them give their hearts…then change their lives. Where else would you see a prison staff and the inmates interact so respectfully?”
During the last three months of the two-year program, the veterans and first responder matches took the dogs home to see if the match worked. Veteran Alan served in the U.S. Navy Special Forces. He received two purple hearts and for his efforts returned home with PTSD. Matched with Hope, he explained, “I couldn’t handle crowds, didn’t go out with my family. Now Hope is right there and she nudges when extreme anxiety is present and she calms me. In three months, she has changed by life. I’m no longer a shut-in.”
First responder Greg was matched with Eddie. “For 22 years I was an officer on patrol, investigator, traffic scene investigator. I saw some gnarly stuff before I retired with a neck injury. I became suicidal, had nightmares and flashbacks about the job. I became isolated, depressed and took lots of medications. Now with Eddie I go out with friends and family. The attention is on the dog and I can talk to people about him. Eddie calms me when startled and I’m sleeping regularly with few nightmares. My worst nightmare lately is when I dreamt Eddie was taken. I still have trouble with my memory and forget to take medications so Eddie reminds me. I’m excited to live again with my family.”
And how will Mike move forward with his New Life without Eddie? “During the matching process, Eddie chose Greg. I appreciated that. Greg thoughtfully preparrf for and welcomrf Eddie into his home even before their matching and boot camp was complete. I know Eddie has a loving home where his wellbeing is valued.”
Each family received a portrait of his K9 painted by Inmate-Handler Wesley. Self-taught while inside, his talent emerged when inspired by the puppies. Art by Wesley is currently on display and for sale at Top Dog Coffee Bar in Morro Bay on Main Street with sales wholly supporting New Life K9s. Additionally, Top Dog owners Patrick Bietz and Suzanne Maury have also created a special labeled coffee and subscription service directly benefiting New Life K9s training program.
Gould graciously thanked the many donor partners. The program cost was $10,000. Kudos were given to an original funding partner, Pawsabilities for Veterans, created by Gil Igleheart and Dick Mellinger while members of the Rotary Club of Cayucos Seaside. Now with Rotary Passport Club of Central Coast, they funded $2,000 for each puppy purchased from breeders at Quail Haven Ridge of Arizona and Kathy’s Lab’s of Arroyo Grande. The training dollars for Hope, Josie and Eddie was funded by Nichols Foundation, Darla Postil, and Idlers.
Update info since the June graduaton:
Rotarian Co-Founders of Pawsabilities for Veterans are Dick Mellinger and Gil Igleheart: Gil said, “We are proud to be considered a partner. Jack calls us “Ambassadors”for New Life K9s. In four years we’ve raised $120,000 by visiting 13 Rotary Clubs in District 5240 and other area districts. Members and clubs have supported New Life K9 through Pawsabilities for Veterans based on their personal or business interests and support for the program. Our mission is specific. We raise funds to directly pay for the cost of the puppies that will be trained by New Life K9s and donated to a Veteran with PTSD at no cost to the Veteran. We’re working on incorporating the First Responder with PTSD as well. In 2018 we have the funds for 7 dogs and have provided 5 of the dogs to be trained.
What’s next? Expansion to Rotary Districts beyond 5240 to spread the word and receive additional funding. We would also like to link with a training facility like Cuesta College that will certify the inmates with skilled training options so they will be prepared to earn a living wage once paroled.
It has been proven the relationship developed during the inmates training year and the transference of the trained dog will give new life to the future owner. It has also been proven the dog will change the heart of an inmate giving him the will to remain on the outside. But until the parolee can earn their way financially there is the temptation to fall back into the lifestyle they lived in the past. New Life K9s is the bridge to guide them over the hump. Job skill training will get them to step beyond the bridge and a living wage job will offer the dignity and reason to stay on the other side.
Nicole Hern: Nine imate-handlers have been paroled since June, 2018 and none have returned or missed an appointment with their parole officer. This is good news for the high incidence of recidivism, which is a drain on state prison system costs.
KVEC Radio Talk Show Host Dave Congalton challenged listeners to support the program by donating together. If 22 people donate $22 for 22 months it will pay for the cost of the dog and the training program.
Top Dog Coffee has funded Cooper and is well into the training program. Check out the website at www.newlifek9s.org to see if you might join a team!!!