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Incarcerated veterans train dogs for other vets

Jan. 4, 2013 - 08:06AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 4, 2013 - 08:06AM  |  
Nero, a veteran assistance dog in training, takes a ball from inmate James Harrison on Dec. 18 during a training session at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown, Md. Nero is one of three dogs assigned since September to inmates at the maximum-security prison for basic training as service dogs for disabled military veterans. The inmates, who are also veterans, are among the state's first prisoners to join a national trend of training service dogs in correctional institutions.
Nero, a veteran assistance dog in training, takes a ball from inmate James Harrison on Dec. 18 during a training session at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown, Md. Nero is one of three dogs assigned since September to inmates at the maximum-security prison for basic training as service dogs for disabled military veterans. The inmates, who are also veterans, are among the state's first prisoners to join a national trend of training service dogs in correctional institutions. (Patrick Semansky / AP)
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Dill, a veteran assistance dog in training, looks on as inmate John Barba walks away Nov. 26 after commanding Dill to sit and stay during a demonstration at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown, Md. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

CRESAPTOWN, Md. — Hazard Wilson's new cellmate is a hairy bundle of energy whose playful zeal can't be contained by steel doors: a 5-month-old golden retriever. Yardley is one of three canines assigned since September to inmates at a maximum-security prison in western Maryland for training as service dogs for disabled military veterans.

The number of programs nationwide using inmates to train service dogs is growing, but the program at Western Correctional Institute might be the first to use incarcerated veterans to train dogs for other veterans.

Professional trainers say prison-raised dogs tend to do better than those raised traditionally in foster homes, because puppies respond well to consistency and rigid schedules. That's just what they get in prison.

It's not all work and no play.

"I just love to see him be a puppy," said Wilson, 53, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. "We're putting them through some very stringent training — 90 percent of their time is training — so it gives me great joy just (to) see them romp and roll around and be puppies."

The dogs were provided by America's VetDogs of Smithtown, N.Y. They're spending 14 months at the prison for training in obedience and tasks such as working light switches and retrieving objects.

Trainer Kathy Levick comes in once a week for two hours of instruction. Otherwise, the inmates — model prisoners housed in a tier of cells reserved for the most trusted inmates — work with the dogs constantly. The animals sleep in cages inside the 6-by-9-foot cells and accompany the inmates to meals and activities.

"As soon as the trainer gave us the green light, I took him to church," said John Barba of his pup, Dill. "I just put the rug down, told him to sit, lay down, and that was it. And he stayed there the whole Mass."

Barba, 62, was interviewed at the prison in November. He was released Dec. 17 after serving 33 years for murder. Each prison puppy is assigned both a trainer and an alternate, so Dill's training wasn't interrupted.

The dogs spend their weekends at nearby private homes to experience life on the outside — things such as shopping malls, traffic lights and ordinary household chaos.

The prison, tucked into the Appalachian Mountains about 140 miles west of Baltimore, was the first to receive dogs under the Maryland program. Since then, six have arrived at Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore, and four at the Maryland Correctional Institution near Hagerstown, Division of Correction spokeswoman Erin Julius said.

More than 120 inmates at the three prisons have applied to participate, although some haven't yet cleared a selection process that bans known gang members and anyone with a record of child or animal abuse.

The number of prison puppy programs is growing, said Corey Hudson, president of the North American chapter of Assistance Dogs International, a group that establishes and promotes training standards. He estimated that 30 of ADI's approximately 90 U.S. members have such programs. They include 13 run by Hudson's nonprofit organization, Canine Companions for Independence, at institutions ranging from the Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio, to the military's Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Hudson said prison-raised dogs graduate at a slightly higher level than those reared in traditional settings. A Tufts University study of 397 assistance dogs that entered training between 1999 and 2004 found that those raised in prisons needed less polishing and succeeded at a higher rate: 76 percent versus 61 percent for home-raised dogs.

"I would say the more prison programs we can have, the better," Hudson said. "When they're in the prison, that's their major focus, 16 to 18 hours a day."

The veteran angle — incarcerated vets raising service dogs for other veterans — may be unique to Maryland. Julius said inmates who were honorably discharged from the military are preferred, but those with less-than-honorable discharges are considered.

Wilson, a former military police officer honorably discharged in 1982, said he's proud to help another veteran.

"I feel as though they don't get what they deserve when they come home," he said. "This is a part of why I do what I do."

The program is among a number of animal-based prison programs implemented by Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard, who grew up on an Oklahoma farm. Other Maryland inmates raise companion dogs, which don't provide physical assistance, and tend retired thoroughbreds.

"Everybody thinks it's about the dogs," Maynard said. "It's about the inmates and the change in their lives."

Warden Frank Bishop said the puppies' arrival in September brought an aura of lightness to Western Correctional Institution. As the dogs moved with their inmate trainers through a chow line one November morning, "there was a sense of calmness," Bishop said.

"In this type of environment, that's incredible," he said. "The animals bring a sense of normalcy."

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