New leash on life
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In the America’s VetDogs program, puppies as young as 7-weeks-old are trained and given to disabled veterans returning from war. Participating Eastern Correctional Institution inmates were chosen based on their behavior and criminal records.

WESTOVER — Inmate David Stukes walks toward the front Eastern Correctional Institution chapel with his dog, a 4-month-old black Labrador-retriever mix he received in December.

When he calmly tells the dog to sit, it follows directions. A second later, it stands back up. He repeats his command, but the dog only tilts its head and remains standing. Stukes motions to another inmate for help. The other inmate pets and calms the puppy.

“This is why we have second handlers,” Stukes said.

Stukes, along with a handful of other inmates, are a part of the prison’s America’s VetDogs program in which puppies as young as 7-weeks-old are trained and given to disabled veterans returning from war. The inmates were chosen based on their behavior and criminal records.

ECI is one of three prisons in Maryland to participate in the program. The other two are Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown and Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

The fact the puppies will be used to help disabled veterans strikes a chord with Stukes, a veteran himself.

“We want everybody to know that it’s not just a job,” Stukes said. “It’s not only an honor and privilege but our duty and responsibility to serve our returning vets.”

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, thinks the program not only benefits returning soldiers but the prisoners themselves.

“Sometimes you get put in here and the light bulb comes on,” Vernarelli said. “America’s VetDogs allow those who want to change (to) pay society back.”

Inmate handler Shane Pardoe agreed, believing the program increases a prisoner’s marketability when they re-enter the world. Despite its positive effects on the inmates, Pardoe stresses the program’s true purpose.

“This program is not about the staff or the inmates,” Pardoe said. “Its about helping and improving the quality of life for that veteran who served our country.”

Pardoe, whose muscular build gives him an intimidating presence, acts gentle toward his puppy, awarding him treats for simply standing and sitting on command. Like every inmate-dog pairing, basic training like this occurs within their cells, where the puppies sleep in crates near their handlers.

The cells are in a special part of the prison called “The Honor Tier” because inmates staying there have gone at least one year without a single violation. All the cell doors are left open with a small dog gate in each doorway.

“For the guards, it was quite a learning curve to see inmates walking their dogs around,” Vernarelli said.

The handling of the puppies must simulate life with a disabled person. For example, inmates are told not to hold the puppies in their laps since their future owners may be a double amputees. Every weekend, the puppies are given handlers outside the prison. Called weekend raisers, they are responsible for socializing the puppies so they can be familiar with life beyond the prison gates.

“I heard a story where this dog was with his weekend handlers out there where you’ll find things we may not have here,” said Sgt. Paul Stephenson, a corrections officer at ECI. “And so he saw a pinecone and just freaked out.”

This is the routine for the entire 12 to 14 months the inmates will care for the dogs. Afterward, the dogs will be taken to the America’s VetDogs’ headquarters in Smithtown, N.Y., to be tested on their skills. The final stage of the dogs’ training will be a trial run with a potential owner in order to familiarize the two.

Even though the prison is only two months into the program, it is already having a successful impact. Some of the inmates have not seen, let alone handle, a puppy in the last 10 or 15 years.

“The moment the dogs came in, the whole atmosphere changed,” Stukes said.

The atmosphere will likely stay the same when this group of dogs leave their handlers, making room for a new set of puppies who are ready for their first day of training. Warden Kathleen Green thinks so.

“VetDogs is one of the most worthwhile programs in my tenure here,” Green said.