Puppies for Parole brings veterans comfort

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MEXICO — A formerly stray dog named Soldier is now helping veterans and their families when they needed it the most.

Initially taken in at the Garrett Animal Shelter in Fulton, Soldier was running out of time when the Puppies for Parole program at Algoa Correctional Center decided to give him a try.

“Our Puppies for Parole coordinator here at the institution contacted the Mexico Veterans Home and talked to them about the possibility of them wanting a house dog and they agreed,” said Louisa Bolinger, deputy warden of offender management at the center.

Bolinger and two veterans from the Mexico home made their way to Fulton to pick out a dog that could be trained and be adopted by staff at the veteran’s home. They chose a yellow lab/retriever mix and named him Soldier.

“We showed up there, and actually, Soldier was in one of the outside pens and at first he was scared of the two veterans,” Bolinger said.

Soldier found ball caps and motorized wheelchairs intimidating at the time of the visit. However, he was still selected as the house dog for the veteran’s home, but the home's representatives said there was just something about him.

From there, Soldier was assigned to two offender handlers at the correctional center and participated in Canine Good Citizen training, an 8-10 week program for dogs in Puppies for Parole.

“He had a very sweet, genuine personality and he was very bright,” Bolinger said. “So we knew that he would be the perfect fit for the veteran’s home.”

Puppies for Parole was started in 2010 by Missouri Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi. Since then, the program has become a part of 19 out of the 21 correctional institutions in the state. More than 4,000 dogs have been saved, trained and adopted through the program.

It’s also not just puppies helping people.

“We have taken that (Fulton) from a high euthanization rate shelter to a zero euthanasia rate for adoptable dogs,” Bolinger said.

Lombardi said he started the program to help with the issue of puppy mills in the state. He said he’s seen the program give offenders a sense of compassion, while also bettering the atmosphere in correctional facilities.

“One of the things I didn’t foresee was the amazing fact that, as the program started, more than half the dogs at almost every prison were adopted by the staff of the prison,” Lombardi said. “So you can see where that would improve the relationship, in many ways, between staff and offenders.”

At the Mexico Veterans Home, residents are happy to have Solider as a comfort companion.

Former Marine and resident Dwight Hudspeth has seen Soldier four-fives times a week for the last five years.

“No matter what kind of day you started off with, seeing Soldier come by, how he stops and likes to visit, greets, it makes your day. It brightens your whole day,” Hudspeth said. “I’ve been honored and blessed to be here; Soldier adds to that very greatly. I’ve been here six years- - I hope I’m here 15 - and I hope Soldier is with me every step of the way.”