VIFF: If you saw Prison Dogs and didn't cry, you're a heartless wretch

This movie had all the ingredients necessary to make you bawl — puppies growing into dogs, prisoners earnestly working toward a second chance, veterans with PTSD desperate for a way to better their lives, a lovable cast of characters and the heartbreak of saying goodbye.

The film opens with the members of the Puppies Behind Bars program — all inmates of Fishkill Correctional Facility — receiving the puppies they'll train for the next 12-20 months. Seeing their faces light up when they're introduced to their new best friends is enough to melt the heart of even the staunchest cat person.

A major strength of this film is in its cast of characters. Gloria, Puppies Behind Bars's explosively animated headmaster, rules the inmates with an iron fist. The program is her pride and joy, and god help you if you don't respect its importance. On the other hand, those who buy in are handsomely rewarded with access into her inner circle.

The inmates are immensely engrossing to watch in their own right. What is perhaps most fascinating is what the dogs represent to them — a chance to prove themselves, a chance to raise the daughter that grew up while they were inside — a chance to “do something right.”

We also get a personal look into the lives of veterans suffering from PTSD, who were — to say the least — worse for wear after their tours. Some struggled to cope with venturing outside their own home. Though they all had serious issues to deal with, the documentary took care to paint the veterans as multi-faceted human beings — not objects of pity.

It's easy to understand that service dogs benefit those suffering from serious disorders, but the before and after glimpses that the documentary affords its viewers paints a stark contrast. The dogs are so much more than their commands — turn off the light, call 9-1-1 — they're a constant source of comfort and confidence in every respect. Seeing it firsthand is a rare and incredibly striking opportunity.

If you have a chance to see this film, and you're okay with a lot of emotions all at once, I can't recommend it enough.