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Pups and Prisoners Prepare for New Life

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Rehabilitation comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes, it has four paws and a tail. KREX 5 Reporter Colette Bordelon traveled all around the state to find out more about a program that has given thousands of people, and pups, a second chance. Lance Ferguson loves his dogs, and is constantly surrounded by the furry friends. "If this was a perfect world, everybody would have a dog by their side at all times going everywhere," said Ferguson. Ferguson is an experienced dog trainer, and he was part of a program that gave him a foundation for his future with canines. "Lived with me in the room, they were by my side every day. I was able to get a deep understanding... I learned what it takes to actually fix these dogs," said Ferguson. His training happened while he was behind bars and forced to work on himself. "Whenever I was young, I got in with the wrong group of friends, and allowed the things that were going on to influence me, to influence my choice-making. And I became addicted to methamphetamines, and because of my methamphetamine addiction, I did criminal activity which led to my incarceration in prison," said Ferguson. Ferguson immersed himself in the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program at Arrowhead Correctional Center. "That program doesn't only help dogs, it's not only a rescue, it's not only a board and training facility, it's also given people like me a new direction, a new life," said Ferguson. KREX 5 News met the woman behind it all at Arrowhead Correctional Center in Canon City. "Started out, we walked into the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility with 5 dogs on that day. And that was really emotional," said Debi Stevens, the supervisor of the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program. The program can now be found in seven prisons across Colorado. From those five original dogs to almost 12,000 dogs, this program has made countless second chances possible, for both pups and prisoners. "You have to say, who's saving whom?" said Stevens. There are two kinds of dogs in the program. Correctional Industries Owned Dogs, which are canines rescued from different shelters all over the state. There are also privately owned pups, referred to as Boarding In Dogs. The owners pay for their dog to get trained in the program, which pays the bills. The Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program is not supported by taxpayer dollars. "Employ the offenders, help them learn a vocational skill. And then we have to operate like a business, so that we are paying for the program without being a burden on the taxpayers," said Stevens. At this point, 4,371 dogs have been rescued and 7,607 have been privately owned. To become a member of the program, an inmate has to meet certain requirements. "Have to earn their way into the program with their behavior," said Stevens. There are 149 "six footed pairs" in the program all the time. At this time, there have been no studies on the recidivism rates for inmates who have gone through the program. Stevens said she never could have imagined the ripple effect her idea would have. "When I started this program, did I realize that it was going to impact the literally millions of people's lives that it has? And my response would have been no," said Stevens. Kevin Payton is one of nearly 2,500 offenders that have been in the program. He described his days in prison before the program as "pretty monotonous, it's pretty boring... fenced in with 499 other people... it can be frustrating, you know, nobody really likes the situation," said Payton. Jordan Stroud is another inmate in the program at Arrowhead Correctional Center. Stroud and Payton both said this program has helped them in many ways. "To enjoy things, even though I'm in a bad situation. It's taught me to remember that there's still good things in life, it's taught me responsibility, it's taught me to focus on other things besides all this around me, it brings out the better side of me too," said Stroud. When you do what you love, doing time can take on an entirely different meaning. "It just gives you something to rise up to, so you're not like, oh I'm here, but now you're like, yes I get to do something, I get to take care of this dog. It's really exciting, it's really something extremely rewarding," said Troy Leeling, a handler in the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program. The dogs that go through the program could be the newest member of someone's family, or they could become assistance dogs. One of those lucky pups found her way into our State Capitol. "My wife always says that Skye is a dog of the streets who lives in a mansion," said Governor John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper and his wife adopted Skye from Fort Collins and enrolled her in the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program. "Most importantly, the inmates get some real training in terms of what they might be able to do once they get released," said Hickenlooper. He added that inmates may have a unique insight into dogs. "A dog that's been badly behaving at home, a dog trainer that's made a few mistakes as well, probably has some insight into that dog's soul," said Hickenlooper. Ferguson is one of those people, and he is now starting his own dog training business here in Grand Junction, called RUFF Around the Edges. "I actually design off of my own rehabilitation... I approach dogs not just wanting to teach them basic obedience, like sit down, stay and come, I want to look at their everything that's going on around them, and see how we can get them in balance," said Ferguson. For Ferguson, hope is where the heart smiles and the tail wags. "Just like with me and with dogs, we have to just start fresh and keep moving forward," said Ferguson. To find out more about his new dog training business, visit his website at www.ruffaroundtheedges.com. He also has a Facebook page, called RUFF Around the Edges Canine Club.