ANGIE, La. – For DeQwane King, of Algiers, training dogs has become a labor of love.
“This is my passion. I love animals. I have a heart for animals especially dogs,” he said.
King is one of six Canine Assessment and Training Staff, or CATS, working with dogs from the Jefferson Parish SPCA.
But the CATS aren't just any trainers. They are convicted criminals serving their time at the Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, Louisiana. And among 1,300 inmates at this medium security state prison, these six are helping to save shelter dogs, who in turn, are saving them.
“This program has definitely changed my life forever,” said King. “I've been touched by this.”
The program began at Rayburn just six weeks ago. Since then, inmates have learned to train canines and care for them around the clock.
“Here, they get very intensive training,” said William Barse, who founded the program through his non-profit, Doggone Express in Belle Chasse. “They start at 5:30 in the morning and end at 10:30 at night. That's seven days a week.”
A well trained dog has a better chance of finding a home. The Jefferson Parish SPCA takes in 1,000 animals a month, according to programs director Jacob Stroman.
“I think it's going to shine a light on the homeless pet population in Jefferson Parish,” said Stroman.
And even as inmates train these animals, they're learning just as much from them.
“What this dog has brought to me is true friendship when friends and family turn their back on me,” said King. “This dog has changed my life and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.”
On Monday, the program's first group of four dogs took part in a graduation ceremony. Two of them had already been adopted.
After the pomp and circumstance, the dogs were led to a van that took them back to Jefferson Parish.
For the inmates, the hardest part was letting go.
“I'm going to be hurt because of the separation that's going to come between us,” said King of his dog, Dougie, also from the Westbank. “To know that I'm going to give back to the community and do something positive, I'll feel better about myself.”
But the second group of canines soon arrived, and this time, the program will be bigger and better.
Organizers say the dogs will be trained to help the hearing impaired.
“It's my vision and I feel blessed beyond words to be here each and every day,” said Barse.
Barse says starting this program was a dream come true. He is mostly funding it out of pocket, and hopes to one day expand throughout the state.
“We need help right now. There is an ongoing need for supplies,” said Barse.
For now, it's a program that's already become a second chance for lost dogs and souls to be saved.