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A special graduation ceremony was held behind bars in Lancaster, as prisoner-trained service dogs prepare to help military veterans.

The Paws For Life program takes animals from high kill shelters and prepares them for a life of service. And the inmates who train them often find themselves benefitting as well.

Irving Relova, who was serving a life sentence for murder, trained 3-year-old cane corso mix Jethro who was abused and abandoned by his owners. A little over a year later, Jethro’s transformation has been nothing short of remarkable, and so has Relova’s.

“Most of these dogs, I found out they were abused and abandoned, neglected, so I saw a big part of myself in a lot of the dogs,” Relova said. “A lot of guys haven’t seen dogs for over 15, 20, 25 years. We felt our humanity came back/

Jon Grobman, who works for Paws For Life, said the program helps inmates make amends.

“The people that were afflicted by the crimes they committed … there’s no way for them to make a direct impact in their lives, but what they can do is make amends through their community by transforming who they are as individuals,” he said.

Two dogs that graduated Thursday are going home with the veterans they’ve been placed with, while 15 other animals also completed their training and are ready for adoption.

It’s unusual for the inmates themselves to adopt the rescued dogs, since most of them are locked up for life. But Relova will soon have the taste of freedom once again. His life sentence was commuted, and a parole board found him suitable for release. In a matter of weeks, with the governor’s pending approval, he will leave his prison cell –his home for 25 years–  with a new outlook on life and with his trusted companion by his side.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to go out on walks and just feel freedom,” Relova said.