GATESVILLE — From the outside, it may seem like Dawn Buish doesn’t have much to look forward to each day.
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 group that works with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to train service dogs for disabled veterans.
The Rockwall-based program — operating in three 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 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 also are some golden retrievers and mixed breeds. And often they’re floppy-eared puppies, still less than 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 dog 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.
She put in a request and waited.
Around 2007, when Stevens first sat down for talks with prison officials, she brought along her service dog. For more than two hours, as Stevens remembers it, the pup sat 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 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. Over the years, the program has required some adjustments.
“Dog training is easy,” Stevens said. “People training is hard.” The program was 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.