MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) – A group of inmates at Muskegon Correctional Facility are training assistance dogs for Paws With a Cause.

Thirty-six inmates work with 18 dogs teaching them commands and behavior they need to know to work as service animals.

“They’ll be service dogs for kids with autism, that’s why we worked on the settle exercise earlier,” said Paws With a Cause Canine Liaison Connie Bowne. “Some of them will be a service dog for someone with a physical disability.”

The organization has dogs in four prisons in Michigan including Muskegon Correctional Facility.

The inmates are paired up to care for the dogs for four months. The dogs live in the inmates’ cells, spending 24 hours a day with them.

Since the inmates have nothing but time on their hands, it’s a huge help to Paws With a Cause, allowing them to train more dogs.

“They can do (commands) hundreds of times a day if need be,” Bowne said. “They’re doing it quite often. We ask them to do something and the next week they’ve got it. The man hours and the repetition that’s happening, it’s just invaluable to us.”

As for the inmates, they must be approved for the program.

The inmates cannot have crimes of abuse or a sexual nature on their record and they must be on good behavior while in prison.

Prison officials said they’ve seen a positive response from the inmates involved in the program.

“They see it as an opportunity to give back to their community,” said Robert Howard, a prison counselor at Muskegon Correctional Facility. “They’ve learned the best thing that they can do with their time here is give back to the community.”

The warden, Sherry Burt, said it’s been a calming experience for the inmates as well.

“A lot of them haven’t seen a dog, some of them for 40 years, depending upon how long they’ve been locked up,” Burt said. “This is an opportunity for building relationships.”

The dogs will remain at the prison until the spring then they will head to Paws With a Cause Headquarters for further training, eventually being placed with a person in need of an assistance dog.

———Online: Paws with a Cause