Puppies that are being trained in prisons are giving hope to those who need it the most. We follow the story of Ruby who, like many other puppies who pass the Pups in Prison program run by Assistance Dogs Australia, is now giving independence to a young boy.
Jenny Reid, Pups in Prison project leader
Big surly men with tattoos stood in the prison yard. But there wasn't any fear, just immense excitement. 'Aw, look at him,' one prisoner beamed. 'He's so damn cute, aren't you mate?'
The labrador puppy bounced on the spot, eager to meet his new friend. The prisoner picked him up, laughing as he was showered in puppy kisses.
Even though we were inside a prison, this is a common scene for the trainers from our Pups in Prison program. Run by Assistance Dogs Australia, the program sees prisoners become trainers for our assistance dogs.
Not to be confused with guide dogs, assistance dogs help those with physical disabilities become more active and independent.
It's amazing what the dogs learn to do - everything from opening doors, to picking things up and switching on lights.
'It's a triple win situation,' I tell people. 'We get dedicated trainers for our dogs, it does wonders for the prisoners, and the dogs completely change the lives of their recipients.'
A team of trainers take the pups into prison and teach the inmates to work with the dogs.
'You see them displaying so much gentleness,' a prison officer told me. 'These are often hardened men, not used to showing affection. It breaks down the walls they build up.'
The inmates take pride in doing something so positive.
'We haven't heard laughter like that in here in years,' one juvenile-justice officer told me.
At first, the dogs only stay part-time, but eventually they live in prison full-time. The results can still surprise me.
'I felt like I'd never be a good dad to my kids,' an inmate said. 'But working with the puppies, I've learnt you've got to have patience and be consistent. I know I can be a better dad.'
At about 15 months, the dogs finish training in the prisons and we hold a graduation day.
It's both a sad and happy day. The prisoners develop a bond with their dogs and it's hard to say goodbye.
'You be good buddy. I'll miss you,' they say.
But they're also happy knowing the dogs are going to people who really need them.
When they finally go to their new owner, it's rewarding telling the prisoners about the person they're helping.
'Your dog has gone to a little girl in a wheelchair,' I'd say. 'She can do things now that she was never able to before.'
It costs about $25,000 to train an assistance dog and all funds are raised through donations.
We'd like more people to know about the work we do because assistance dogs and our Pups in Prison program are changing people's lives.
There are a number of ways you can help Assistance Dogs Australia.
You could sponcer a puppy in training or
become involved in puppy raising or puppy sitting.
Visit www.assistancedogs.org.au for more information.
Ruby's a gem
Gavin Ford, 42, Brisbane, Qld
My son Nathan, 12, has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. It can be difficult for him to hold things like the remote when he's watching a DVD.
'I'm fine Dad. Ruby got it,' he shrugged. His assistance dog, Ruby, looked proud as punch. She'd picked up the remote for Nathan before I even got into the room!
'Thank you, Ruby,' I smiled, again counting our blessings for having her. When Ruby came to us two years ago, our lives completely changed. She is a beautiful honey labrador with the sweetest nature.
Now we can't imagine life without her. Every day, my wife Denise, our daughter Josephine and I are amazed at Ruby's skills. Before she came along, Nathan had little independence. If he wanted to play in his room, little things like opening doors and picking up toys would have to be done for him. One of us would be with him all the time.
Ruby was trained as part of the Pups in Prison scheme and her inmate trainer had done an amazing job.
'Just look at her,' Denise would marvel, seeing Ruby open the door for Nathan using special pull-ropes.
Ruby can just about do anything. She'll open his toy cupboards and fetch things. It's quite funny when she opens the door to let the cats in!
Ruby is so skilled, she picks up items as small as a pencil.
It means our family has been given a new sense of freedom. We feel safe knowing Ruby is with Nathan all the time and that she's so devoted to him.
If we hear Ruby bark, we know Nathan needs something she can't do, but that doesn't happen very often. When he gets into his pyjamas at night, she even takes off his socks!
Ruby doesn't go to school with Nathan but when he gets home, she doesn't leave his side. It's an indescribable bond and I'm grateful to Assistance Dogs Australia and those who trained Ruby. She's an angel.
As told to Nikki Roberts
Do you have a special furry friend in your life? Share your story by leaving a comment below.