GATESVILLE, Texas (AP) — From the outside, it may seem like Dawn Buish doesn't have much to look forward to each day.
The Houston Chronicle reports she goes to bed staring at a drab prison wall, lies down on a thin prison mattress and falls asleep dreaming of the days — at least 300 of them — left until her release.
But in the morning, she's grateful.
"I get to wake up to dogs' faces every day," she said. "You can't do that anywhere else in prison."
Buish is one of a handful of prisoners helping out with Patriot Paws, a nonprofit that works with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to train service dogs for disabled veterans.
The Rockwall-based program — now operating in three different prisons — came to TDCJ 10 years ago. And now, after successfully training more than 250 dogs, it's hoping to add a few more wagging tails in the coming months.
"We just talked a couple weeks ago about expanding," said Lori Stevens, founder and executive director of Patriot Paws.
The program relies on around 50 inmate trainers at three different prisons. Crain Unit, the women's prison in Gatesville where Buish lives, has the largest contingent of dogs and trainers. There, the women live in an open dorm setting, and the dogs sleep in crates next to the prisoners' bunks.
The nearby Murray Unit for women and the Boyd Unit men's prison in Teague also participate in the program.
The pups come from everywhere — breeders, rescues, trainers. They're usually Labradors, but there are also some golden retrievers and mixed breeds. And often they're floppy-eared puppies, still under a year old when they come in. After 18 to 24 months of training, they go to veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, head trauma, loss of limbs and other conditions.
"Our specialty is mobile disability dogs — they can help make your bed, get dressed or pick up dropped items," Stevens said. "But it's a lot more complicated that just taking a dog to prison for a year and a half."
A parade of fur and fluff sashayed across a Crain Unit day room during an impromptu dog and puppy show earlier this year.
"All of our dogs are hams," Stevens said with a grin.
The women use verbal cues, treats and plenty of belly rubs to train the dogs on a daily basis. Once a week, Stevens and other Patriot Paws workers and volunteers from all over the state drive to the three participating units for site visits.
When training is underway, the room fills with the sounds of the little plastic clickers the women use — often paired with treats — to reinforce good behavior.
One curious pup mistakes the sound of a camera shutter for a reward click and rushes over to investigate.
Another shows off his "prayer" pose, one of his latest tricks.
"Dear God, I pray to be a good service dog, amen," the woman training him narrates, drawing laughter from the other trainers.
Buish looks on with a smile. Praying for better is something she knows a bit about.
This isn't her first time in prison. Now 40, the Pasadena native started using meth at 18.
She had a good childhood but in her late teens surrounded herself with "bad guys" — and drugs provided an escape.
"It was all my fault," she said. "It was just getting mixed up with the wrong crowd."
At 27, she got arrested for possession. It was the first time she'd ever really been in trouble, but after a stint in state prison, she stayed clean for almost a decade, working hard to keep her life on track.
She got a job as a waitress and raised her three kids, now all in their late teens.
But eight years later, she fell back into old habits. Again, trouble came calling, and by 2014, she found herself facing another set of set of charges that would send her back to prison. But this time she wanted to make something of her time behind bars.
She'd heard of the Patriot Paws program — but she knew it was hard to get into. There are roughly 12,000 women in Texas prison but only a couple dozen coveted dog training spots open.
"I was really nervous," she said.
But she put in a request and waited patiently.
Around 2007, when Stevens first sat down for talks with prison officials, she brought along her own service dog. For more than two hours, as Stevens remembers it, the pup sat quietly under the table as his owner sketched out her hopes for a prison program.
At the end of the meeting, Stevens pushed back her chair to leave — and her dog's tail thump-thump-thumped.
Nathaniel Quarterman, then TDCJ's Correctional Institutions Division director, fell silent for a minute.
"You mean," he said, "there was a dog under this table the whole time, and I didn't know it?"
And he was sold.
At that point, Patriot Paws was just about a year old and run by four volunteers working out of a 450-square-foot office near Dallas.
The budding program had successfully placed four dogs in its first two years. But Stevens, a former Petco dog trainer, wanted to do more.
At first, she was a little apprehensive about going into the prison system.
"It scared the crap out of me," she said. "I had never even been to jail."
And TDCJ had its own concerns. Dog training programs were already in other prison systems — but not in Texas.
Here, it was an untested progressive shift toward rehabilitation. But with that change came risks. Getting dogs, trainers and pet supplies onto the units meant a different set of security preparations — and so many possibilities for what could go wrong.
"Ten years ago, it was a leap of faith," said former TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark.
Over the years, it's required some adjustments.
"Dog training is easy," Stevens said. "People training is hard."
The program was initially slated for one unit but ended up launching at two instead, then eventually expanded at one unit and added a third. Now, there are slots for 34 dogs at any given time.
At first, dogs stayed there for the whole 18 or more months of training — but it quickly became clear that wasn't a good idea.
"The dogs were becoming institutionalized," Stevens said. "There were no kids, no cars, no vacuum cleaners."
So now, they spend their months in training alternating between prison and puppy trainers on the outside. They learn at least 65 specific behaviors, including pushing, tugging and retrieving. By the end, they can help do laundry or make a bed.
And as the pups grow and learn, so do the women training them.
"The dogs do the same thing for them that they do for the veterans," said Crain Unit Warden Kelli Forrester.
In the past decade, 30 percent of the women paroled out of the program have gone on to get jobs in animal-related fields, Stevens said. Only two of more than 90 have returned to prison.
"Now their kids can say, 'My mom's a dog trainer,'" she added. "Not: 'My mom's in prison.'"
In a couple weeks, the program will have another graduation, celebrating the dogs ready to move on to their forever homes on the outside.
It was a milestone Buish hoped to miss. Her release was denied this year because of her prior drug use and past criminal history.
She'll spend the next year — until she comes up for parole again in February — waking up to puppy faces and contemplating life after prison.
"I'm going to start fresh and focus on me and my kids," she said. "And I wanna do something with dogs."