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Prison pups project a winner

Last updated 05:00 21/02/2014
Prison Dogs
HANDY HOUND: Golden retriever Leah, pictured with her trainer Pippa, left, helps wheelchair user Dr Michelle Smith live an independent life.

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Leah was more than a friend to Pippa when she was in prison - she was the family support the young woman didn't have.

Leah, a golden retriever, was placed with Pippa at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Wiri for 13 months of her 7 -year sentence.

The prisoner trained the young canine as part of the Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust's Puppies in Prison programme.

The scheme, which has been running since 2010, sees puppies paired with prisoners for basic training before taking up their roles as assistance dogs to people with disabilities.

Pippa, whose real name cannot be released for legal reasons, says Leah was an important part of her rehabilitation.

"She taught me a lot of communication skills. The main one that I'll never forget and that I still carry on to this day is patience," she says.

The pair lived together in one of the prison's self-care huts along with two other inmates and their puppies.

Pippa taught Leah, who is now 2 years old, how to walk to heel, open doors and fetch and carry small items.

The pup learnt 101 commands in the first year they were together, she says.

"She taught me as I taught her."

Ardmore woman Michelle Smith was paired with Leah after she finished her training.

The wheelchair user says Pippa has done an "amazing" job training the dog.

"I'm just blown away by her every single day. She's so placid and calm and she makes me happy."

Leah helps Dr Smith around home and at work with tasks as diverse as laying out the bathmat and fetching documents from the printer.

"Within two weeks of having her, I didn't have to command her. She does it automatically."

Dr Smith and Leah were among 14 pairs of mobility dogs and their owners graduating from their training at a special ceremony in Takanini on the weekend.

Pippa was among the speakers to address the crowd about her experience with the trust. She was released from prison in November last year and is now living in Manurewa, volunteering with Mobility Dogs and hoping to help train another puppy.

Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility prison manager Cheryle Mikaere says the mobility dogs programme is an important part of the Corrections Department's goal of reducing reoffending by 25 per cent by 2017.

The programme teaches prisoners how to interact better socially and builds their confidence and self-esteem, she says.

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- Manukau Courier

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