Colorado inmate trains dogs to help autistic children

Zachary Tucker (left) spent every weekend traveling 200 miles to a high-security prison to work with Clyde and inmate Chris Vogt. (Photo credit: Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Colorado inmate Chris Vogt has nothing but time. In 1998, he was convicted of second-degree murder for helping kill a man, and was consequently sentenced to 48 years in prison for his crime.

“I am in prison on a murder sentence that I’m guilty of,” Vogt tells ABC News.

Society might have seen Vogt as a lost cause, a hardened criminal. But thanks to the Colorado Correctional Industries program Colorado Cell Dogs, Vogt has been able to save worthy shelter dogs, change the lives of nine autistic children to date, and find a bit of peace for himself, too.

As a part of Colorado Cell Dogs, Vogt works with dogs from local shelters, training them one-on-one in his prison cell. He focuses on eliminating problem behaviors and teaching each dog to perform specific skills.

While the program typically focuses on training dogs to help the deaf and blind, Vogt came up with another way he could contribute. For months, Vogt learned everything he could about autism, and devised his own special method of effectively training dogs to assist autistic children.

Nine-year-old Zachary Tucker is one of the children whose life has been changed forever thanks to Chris Vogt’s good work. Zachary, who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, once spent each day overcome with emotional anxiety. Teachers like Erin Carroll say Zachary would often become overwhelmed in class.

“I’m no autism expert, but I’m a teacher who works with kids with disabilities every day, and Zachary was bad,” Carroll explains. “He would crunch down in a fetal position at his desk, he wouldn’t talk, he was inconsolable.”

That’s when Zachary’s parents, Susy and Arthur Tucker, heard about Colorado Cell Dogs. After Zachary was approved for the program, the Tuckers spent every weekend making the 200-mile trip with Zachary to the high-security prison, where Zachary could work with Chris Vogt and one of Vogt’s Colorado Cell Dogs canine trainees, Clyde.

Thanks to Clyde, who Vogt trained to give Zachary reassuring nudges whenever the young boy feels anxious, Zachary says he has improved by leaps and bounds.

“My anxiety has been brought down by at least 70 percent and I’ve been calm enough to socialize with kids, which I haven’t been able to do in a long time,” Zachary explains.

Zachary and his parents recently visited Vogt in prison to thank him for working with Clyde, and Zachary did something he would never have been able to do before meeting the dog and the prison inmate who gave him his life back — he gave Vogt a hug.

Vogt says that through the Colorado Cell Dogs program, he gets to be more than just prisoner 100765 — he gets to be a man who makes a difference in peoples’ lives.

“This is the thing I get to do that gives back,” Vogt says, overcome with emotion. “When, you know, like Zach, and even all the kids, when they come in and work with me, they get to see…you know, they don’t see the murderer no more.”

To learn more about the Colorado Cell Dogs program, check out the documentary “Saving Castaways.”

Source: ABC News, Denver Post