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Richard Fontes poses with a dog from Paws for Life
Photo courtesy of Richard Fontes

Funk legend George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” echoed through 15-inch, 300-watt Behringer speakers and into the exercise yard, its trumpets announcing the arrival of royalty: The first rescue dog in a maximum security prison.

Inside the California prison system, Paws For Life K9 Rescue has used incarcerated people to train service dogs for first responders and for veterans who’ve suffered job-related trauma. We call the dogs “professors” because they offer valuable lessons to its trainers.

Watching Professor Bishop ignore everything except his playmates got me thinking about how often I get distracted when joy dances before me.

Professor Oscar’s gift was love. I was the most important person in the world to him. He wrapped me in a blanket of unconditional friendship. “I’m here for you, buddy,” he seemed to say. Both professors taught mindfulness.

Professor Knuckles, a 120-pound pit bull mix whose size and appearance would give an MMA fighter pause, was aggressive as an angry butterfly. Nervous reactions to this professor showed how perception can cloud the lens. His gregarious nature made him the perfect candidate to visit patients in the prison’s hospice ward, where they adored him. Pain can evaporate, if only temporarily, in the company of dogs.

When they're by our sides, dogs offer instruction for improving emotional intelligence and evaluating how we see each other. One team member, inspired by empathy for his dog’s scars, shared how he, too, was abused. Tears streamed down his face. He accepted a hug from a man whose hand he might not have even shaken before.

We have learned that looks and breeds are poor indicators of a dog’s social skills or suitability for placement with a family. Researchers have found that pit bulls in particular score high on human sociability. Like people, dogs of all breeds flourish when they feel safe and loved.

A freak accident in prison left me paralyzed. But my paralysis did not happen immediately: what’s called “spinal shock” wore off, muscle atrophy kicked in, and soon I was confined to a wheelchair. But Professor Oscar has not allowed my pain to keep me down. I’m not alone: Emergency room patients report less pain and anxiety after 10 minutes with a dog, one study has shown.

The lessons the dogs provide are enduring. In return, our professors seek only food, water and lots of love. We can all afford that tuition.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Richard Fontes is a writer who once served in the U.S. Army. For several years now, he has been involved with Paws For Life K9 Rescue. He is incarcerated in California.