Incarcerated veterans train dogs for other vets

January 5, 2013 8:14:28 PM

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CRESAPTOWN, Md. -- Hazard Wilson's new cellmate is a hairy bundle of energy whose playful zeal can't be contained by steel doors: a five-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 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 like 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.