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Coffee Creek Puppy Program trainer honored by the Portland Veterinary Medical Association

Tuesday, December 9, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Cristina Keef
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By Monique Balas | Special to The Oregonian
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on October 24, 2014 at 10:00 AM, updated October 24, 2014 at 10:28 AM


For the past seven years, dog trainer Heather Ohmart has been doing her part to help prevent future crimes - by teaching inmates at a women's prison to raise puppies.

Ohmart is a contract trainer for Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities at no charge. 

She works with the women inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Center on a weekly basis, helping them build skills for their transition to the outside world as they prepare puppies for helping others.

The 46 inmates that have gone through Coffee Creek Puppy Program have a 0 percent recidivism rate, meaning none of them go on to commit future crime.

To honor Ohmart's work, the Portland Veterinary Medical Association recently presented her with its first-ever Outstanding Service Award.

The award recognizes a person or organization in the Portland area that has promoted the veterinary profession and the welfare of animals through education, research, practice and volunteerism.

Ohmart's "compassion, selflessness and dedication is exactly why we created PVMA awards, to recognize the outstanding service of those in our amazing community," says Cristina Keef, the PVMA's executive director.

About the program

Puppies from CCI's breeding program arrive at the prison when they're about four months old. They come equipped with basic house-training and initially socialization.

The prison puppy program, which began in Oregon in 1995 and has expanded to 12 facilities around the country, provides the puppies with a basic foundation for what they'll learn in advanced training.

The puppies spend about 18 months at Coffee Creek before being returned to CCI's Santa Rosa campus for evaluation and more training to become one of four types of assistance dogs.

Ohmart works with the women to teach the dogs about 30 commands; they also work on house manners and basic behavior issues, she says. They learn everything from teaching the puppies to sit, stand and heel to walking on leash and going potty on command.

"I think that animals are able to reach people much easier than people can sometimes reach people, and [puppy raising] really teaches them to relate to people and to interact with people," Ohmart says. "A huge focus in our group is interpersonal issues and communication skills, and we're constantly working on those things.

The knowledge that the dogs go on to help others connects the inmates to their community, she says, which may also contribute to the lower recidivism rate.

There are currently 10 CCI puppies in training at Coffee Creek and about 80 puppies in prison programs across the U.S.

The opportunity to raise one is a competitive process, similar to applying for a job. There's a questionnaire applicants must fill out, an interview process to complete, and a thorough background and reference check.

No tax dollars are spent on the program and no money comes from Coffee Creek.

Instead, prison staff and even inmates donate money, which is used to purchase food for the dogs. The PVMA provides supplies and donated veterinary care.

"The program is a win-win situation for all involved," says Laurene Brenner, the prison's program coordinator.

"The inmates benefit from their involvement in many personal ways. The rest of the population is allowed to interact when appropriate with the puppies, and staff often come to watch the puppies at play time. CCI receives well-trained puppies, and ultimately the disabled community is provided with the assistance so many want and need to remain independent."

If you want to help: Send checks to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Attn. Puppy Program, 24499 SW Grahams Ferry Road, Wilsonville, OR 97070.

You can also purchase items on their "wish list" on

--Monique Balas;

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