Pooches in prison: Piper's story

Piper went through training with the Missouri DOC to become a service dog for an 11-year-old boy with Autism.

Eleven-year-old Jake and two-year-old Piper the dog are best friends. He takes her on walks every day, plays fetch with her and teaches her new tricks.

Jake has autism. His mom, Melinda York, says his life has been plagued by severe anxiety and loud outbursts since a young age.

But animals calm him down, so Melinda decided to get Jake a dog. They formed an instant bond the first time they met.

"It was best friends from that moment. It was was really overwhelming to see my little boy open up again," York said.

It was several more weeks before they were able to take Piper home, and during that time York says Jake went through a severe anxiety spell. But it was worth it when Piper finally became part of the family.

"The expression on his face and the smile of when we got to bring his dog was just priceless. Because he doesn't get too excited over a whole lot of anything."

Piper's journey to Jake began in mid-Missouri, at Fulton's Garrett Animal Shelter.

"She was left in a pen all the time, the family didn't have a lot of time to spend with her, she was an unruly little dog when she got out because she just wanted attention and wanted to run and play," Tina Barnes, the animal control supervisor at Garrett, said.

The family gave the dog up to the shelter.

But Piper didn't go straight from Fulton to the York family in Knob Noster, she made a pit stop in Jefferson City at Algoa Correctional Center. Piper is a graduate of the Missouri Department of Corrections' Puppies for Parole program, which allows offenders to train the dogs to make them more adoptable.

Algoa partners with Garrett Animal Shelter for the program, which has about 20-24 dogs per six-10 week training session. During the sessions, the inmates teach the dogs basic commands like sit, stay and come.

Both the dogs and the inmates are screened before they enter the program.

"[The offenders] take pride in what they do, and it's really neat to watch that growth for them. Because for some of them this is the first sense of success they've ever experienced," Tina Sutton, the Puppies for Parole coordinator at Algoa, said.

Since the program began nearly three years ago, 179 dogs have graduated from Algoa. All but between five and 10 have been adopted immediately or gone on to more advanced training at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri, to become service dogs.

Piper went to Crossroads, and is now a service dog for Jake. Her service has made tasks possible that were previously unattainable.

"We did go to Walmart two weeks ago without Piper and Jake had a complete meltdown on the way home, it was horrible," York said.

"It was just from the noise and everything else. A week later we go back to Walmart, with Piper, and it was a whole different experience."

But it's not just the dogs and their new families benefitting from the program, it's a growth experience for the inmates as well.

"Some of these guys, they have never had any sense of responsibility whatsoever, and all of the sudden they have something they are responsible for 24/7 because this dog stays in the cell with them," Sutton said.

"And to see a guy sit and cry because he has to give up his dog at graduation when we do the passing of the leash to the new adopting families, you know touches that soft spot."