CONNELL -- Behind the walls of a Connell prison, a small beagle-mix named Brewster has found a purpose.
Much like the inmates at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, he was sent to prison to learn how to follow rules and integrate into society.
Brewster excelled in his obedience lessons and now he is specially trained as a companion dog -- one of two at Coyote Ridge that make the rounds visiting inmates in the prison's special needs unit.
"It is prison and they're ill ... but it's always a positive thing," Ken Hawkins, the prison's medical supervisor, said about letting inmates in the assisted living facility interact with the dogs. "Some of them are crusty old guys, but they get a sparkle in their eyes."
Never miss a local story.
Some of the inmates in the medical unit don't have any family members who visit and visits from the dogs give them "pure companionship" without any demands, Hawkins said.
Coyote Ridge started its dog training program in October with two dogs and six inmates approved to be handlers.
A similar dog program is being used in other prisons in the state including in Walla Walla. But Coyote Ridge is the only facility training companion dogs.
The goal of the offender-based dog training program is to take dogs from the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter in Pasco that are considered unadoptable and potentially face euthanization and train them so they can be adopted.
The dogs go through obedience training that lasts six to eight weeks and learn how to socialize and interact with people. The training is led by Krystal Ellingson of Speak Dog Training.
The program also teaches inmates responsibility, social skills and patience, and has proven to be a good behavior incentive for inmates, officials said.
In a short time, the program has grown to include as many as 22 dogs being trained by 34 handlers in the prison's medium security complex.
It has also expanded to the medium security unit, where Brewster and Blue, a blue-nosed pitbull-mix, live and work as companion dogs.
Brewster spent two to three months at the shelter before being shipped up to Connell. Now he is expected to remain a companion dog for three years, said Warren Summers, one of Brewster's two handlers.
Summers, a 57-year-old Seattle man serving a seven-year prison sentence for residential burglary and drug charges, helped train Brewster when he was going through the initial obedience lessons.
When Brewster moved on to his specialized training, "I was just lucky enough to get the draw," said Summers, who has three years left to serve.
Brewster stays with Summers and his cell mate, Calvin Norwood, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"When you wake up in the morning and you see his little eyes looking at you, it's a cup of humanity when you get to see that," Summers said. "It's really cool to interact with them."
Summers and Norwood said that they see the reaction from inmates in the assisted facility unit and know Brewster's making a difference.
"They really enjoy it. It brings up their spirits," said Norwood, 37.
And it's not just the sick inmates who benefit, said Norwood, who is from the Tri-Cities and has 16 months left on a seven-year sentence for drug delivery.
"When you see a dog in the yard when you haven't see that for a long time, it puts a smile on your face," he said. "Just to see a dog walking down the hall in the morning, it's different."
The dogs in the training program wear different colored bandanas that indicate how far they have progressed through program.
Brewster and Blue also have yellow vests they wear when it's time to go work and head to the assistant living facility. The dogs work five days a week, but also get time off to just be dogs.
Brewster, who was a little skittish with all the attention in the yard Wednesday, became much more alert when Summers and Norwood put on his vest.
"They're taught, when your vest is on, it's your job to greet people," said Ellingson, the professional dog trainer.
Brewster and Blue then walked into the assisted living facility and stopped by rooms and bunks to say hi to many of the men in wheelchairs.
Will Burkett, who was busy cataloging beaded jewelry that he makes, happily took a break from work to pet Brewster.
"I enjoy the dog sticking his nose in so I can give him a couple of pets," Burkett said, who has been in prison for 16 years and has 18 years left to serve. "I love animals ... so it's kind of nice. It's pleasant to have a dog to pet once in a while."
Prison officials say studies have shown that there are physical, mental and psychosocial benefits to having canine companionship in long-term or hospital settings.
But Hawkins, the medical supervisor, admits he was hesitant at first with the idea of bringing the dogs into his unit.
"It didn't take long with the first trip" to get on board, Hawkins said. "The response is good."
Rick Karten, the dog training program manager, said his program is mostly paid for through donations and discounts from pet stores and the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter, which provides food and veterinarian services.
There's also $3,000 in the offender betterment fund, which Karten said can be used for toys, bones and other items the dogs need.
Community donations can be made by calling Karten at 509-543-5922 or through the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter. Adoptions of dogs trained at the prison also are handled by staff at the shelter.