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December 13, 2017 10:00 PM

A Second Chance To Serve

Sioux Falls

You could call Lou a bit of a teacher's pet. 

Justin Goens is training him to be a service dog.

He and a few other inmates are working on a variety of skills with their four-legged students. 

"I'm trying to have him distinguish between a bottle, a medicine bottle, pair of glasses, keys, actually distinguish objects and go and get them for me," South Dakota Inmate Justin Goens said. 

Gail Dickerson with Big Paws Canine Foundation in Sioux Falls is at the helm of the class. 

She's teaching the inmates how to teach the dogs. 

"I came to prison 16 years ago; I was 19-years-old so I've never had to care about anything other than myself. I think that's the biggest help, actually having to look after these dogs," Goens said. 

The program is a team effort shared by Big Paws, the DOC, and the Sioux Falls Area Humane Society, which is where a majority of the dogs in the program are from. 

Humane officer Andy Oestreich attends class each day. 

"It's like grandchildren. Every day in class I'm like, 'I can't believe it; I can't believe it,''' Humane Officer Andy Oestreich said. 

With each class, these trainers-in-training and their dogs are put to the test. 

Jeannie Bertsch with the DOC is a witness to that. 
 
"The first training the dogs were all over the place, jumping on the tables, jumping on you, so it's really quite remarkable to watch how far they've come," Jeannie Bertsch said. 

Only, the work is far from over. Once the dogs complete their training, which could be as early as February or March, they'll be ready for their next assignment: helping a veteran or first responder in need. 

"With our focus being on post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, again an invisible disability that often gets referred to as a lost soul. Now, you've got the inmate, the dog, and the veteran or first responder, so there's all of the lost souls that we get to put together," Gail Dickerson said. 

Giving back to someone who's served our community or our country might just be the greatest reward for Goens. 

"Eleven days after I was arrested, September 11 happened and I guess I never felt that I was able to be a man and do my duty for my country so maybe this is a way to give back a little bit to those who did go and do that," Goens said. 

Throughout this course, he's connected with a new friend, too. 

"I love that dog. It'll be a sad, but happy day when he actually goes to a veteran," Goens said. 

Fortunately, this class comes with extra credit. The program gives inmates the opportunity to become dog trainers professionally when they leave prison. 

"These are skills that they'll take with them their entire lives and skills they'll be able to put on a resume upon release," Bertsch said. 

Goens' release date is a few years away. 

Volk: So in three and a half years could you see yourself training dogs?
Goens: Absolutely and hopefully I'll be good at it then.
Volk: You're good at it now.
Goens: My dog just makes me look good at it.

Eventually, Lou will graduate from this program and Goens will welcome a new dog into this classroom. 

But until then the two will keep learning together, thanks to this second chance to serve someone else. 

Right now four dogs are being trained, but Dickerson says she has four more that she hopes to put in the program. 


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