Training program for service dogs offers new beginning for inmates

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Posted at 7:07 PM, Oct 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-01 20:07:31-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For many of us, a dog is part of the family. For some, they are a lifesaver. Two-year-old Reba is both for Caroline White.

"Reba wasn't something I ever thought I would need. I was always very independent," Caroline told NewsChannel 5's Carrie Sharp.

But last year trauma from White's past began to surface.

"Nightmares every night, I hadn't been sleeping. I wouldn't be able to leave the house by myself. I had to have a caretaker with me, specifically in public I would have panic attacks and not be able to do anything or say anything."

White dropped out of Belmont, entered treatment, and soon sought a new way to live. A fresh start that would begin in a most unlikely place - behind bars at the Debra Johnson Rehabilitation Center in Nashville.

Inmate Charity Garland and golden doodle June Bug are also working on a new beginning. They are part of Retrieving Independence - a 2-year program that utilizes offenders to train service dogs to help those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Reba is a graduate of the program. The dogs learn all sorts of skills from punching an elevator button, to creating space for their companion and even life-saving tasks like retrieving medicine or alerting someone during a medical crisis. The training regiment takes patience, persistence and lots of care. While the goal is to help someone on the outside, there is healing happening on the inside too.

"Throughout the years I've had a problem with addiction and I kinda withdrew from the world. So by working with June Bug and the other dogs, I'm learning to come out of that," explained Garland. Not naturally a "dog person," Garland says she applied for the program because she wanted to help someone.

"I'm giving back for some of the wrong I have done in my life," she said.

As she and June Bug fine-tune their skills, White and Reba are also finding their way. Though they are separated by some barbed wire, both are hoping for better days ahead.

"For me, giving someone a second chance is kinda like what I was asking for in getting a dog – like a second chance at freedom and independence," said White.

Retrieving Independence is a local nonprofit doing this work since 2012. So far, they've placed 74 dogs. Something that truly makes this program unique is that it provides inmates with individual counseling and group therapy. Leaders say the dogs are usually a gateway to get the offenders to finally open up and accept help for themselves.

Men at the Turney Center Industrial Complex also participate in the training program.