April 22, 2014 3:08 PM EDT

This week, KABC profiled a two-year-old program called Pathways to Hope, in which inmates at the California Institute for Women in Chino, Calif., train dogs to be service animals for autistic children and people with special needs in general. The story below focuses on a 4-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome who is finding it easier to communicate with others since getting a black Labrador named Shasta that was trained by a woman serving a life sentence at the facility.

In another video about the program produced this month by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), inmates are given a wheelchair to teach a cockapoo mix named Dusty how to pick up trash and retrieve socks from drawers for the dog’s new wheelchair-bound owner. As one of the female inmates says in the CDCR video, training dogs has made her realize, “I am worthy of getting better.”

The Colorado Correctional Industries has been doing a similar program since 2002. In January, the Denver Post profiled it, leading with an anecdote about a mother, Susy Tucker, whose autistic fifth grader Zachary hugged her for the first time after receiving Clyde, a chocolate Labrador, trained by Christopher Vogt, a convicted murderer and inmate at Trinidad Correctional Facility. According to a follow-up story produced by ABC News last month, Zachary is less anxious and thus getting better grades, especially in math and science.

“Here’s a man that isn’t allowed any physical contact,” Tucker told ABC News. “And yet [Vogt has] given my son the ability to hug and to care about other people.”

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

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