WCI celebrates first VetDogs graduation
Cumberland Times-News

Oct. 25--CRESAPTOWN -- For more than a year, the Western Correctional Institution has hosted some very unusual guests and while some of these guests may soon be departing, their impact will be felt for years to come.

In September 2012, the maximum-security prison welcomed three canines to its population through a partnership with the America's VetDogs program. These three retrievers have subsequently been joined by six additional puppies. Through this program, puppies are matched with inmates, and are housed with them inside their cells. The inmates, many of whom are veterans themselves, spend nearly every minute of the day training and bonding with the puppies. WCI is the first maximum security facility in the country to participate in this program.

America's VetDogs, a non-profit organization, was founded in 2003 by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, to help meet the needs of disabled veterans and active duty personnel.

On Friday, this pilot program celebrated the "graduation" of the first set of puppies, Ace, Dill and Vero. The day was bittersweet for the inmates, but their pride was evident as they demonstrated the skills and commands the puppies have mastered under their watchful care and that of the weekend puppy trainers, area volunteers, that also helped care for the puppies.

WCI Warden Frank B. Bishop Jr. applauded the efforts of the staff and inmates to make this program a success.

"What they have done together is just incredible. Our partners in the community, combined with the work of the inmates and the staff has just been amazing and I could not be more proud," he said.

The screening process for the trainers was stringent, and each inmate was carefully evaluated by a team of social workers, psychologists, and WCI and America's VetDogs staff. Honorably discharged veterans were given preference, but all candidates were required to have acceptable behavioral records while they have been incarcerated.

Inmate trainers Hazard Wilson and Mancel Clark spoke of the bond the inmates have formed with the dogs and the joy they have experienced as they have watched the dogs transform from playful puppies to mature dogs.

"I am so honored to be a part of this and so proud to know that what we are doing here will help a veteran. It feels so good to know that we can give back and do something to help men and women that are coming back with so many problems," Wilson said. "This is just a small way I can redeem myself."

In addition to the intensive training at WCI, weekend puppy trainers welcomed these dogs into their homes, allowing them to experience family life in a more traditional setting, while taking them out to restaurants and stores, to help them acclimate to the life they will experience once placed with a veteran.

Bishop laughingly calls these weekend outings "puppy parole."

Shannon Cannon and her family served as weekend trainers for Ace. She said the experience has proven more meaningful than she could have ever imagined. As she shared her experience, Cannon became emotional, something that Ace quickly picked up, whining as he watched her speak.

"We take pride in our puppy as he grows and learns more each week; it's extremely rewarding knowing we are helping this puppy grow into a service dog that will aid an injured or handicapped veteran," Cannon said. "I come from a family of veterans, in fact my brother is currently serving his third tour in Iraq/Afghanistan, so it's an honor for me to give back to the men and women who have served our country and to teach my children the value of participating in such a worthy cause."

Kathy Levick, an America's VetDogs instructor, travels weekly to WCI to lead inmates and weekend trainers in sessions designed to prepare the puppies for service work.

"Service dogs need consistency and having them in the care of their handlers inside the prison gives the puppies the intensive training they will need to one day serve as a service dog."

She said the puppies are well-adjusted and happy, well-cared for, receive the best medical care from LaVale Veterinary Hospital, and most importantly are loved.

The ceremony also served as an introduction for the next group of puppies, Bethany, Flint and Mack. Their arrival helped soften the blow, as the trainers prepared to say goodbye to the first graduates of the America's VetDogs program at WCI.

Clark said he was going to greatly miss Vero, simply stating that "training Vero has been a pleasure and an honor."

"But, I think this one right here is going to be a great dog, I can just tell," Clark added as he held Flint.

Recognizing that this step was difficult for the men, Sheila O'Brien, director of External Relations for America's VetDogs, reminded the inmates that through their work, disabled veterans would now have the chance for a better quality of life.

"There are 50,000 wounded veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan that need good dogs. Thanks to you men, your brothers and sisters will have the help they need. Your work is going to give a veteran a life of independence and we thank you," O'Brien said.

The puppies will return to America's VetDogs headquarters in New York to receive more specialized training and will be placed with a veteran in the coming months. The new owners will be receiving journals kept by the inmates, tracking the progress of the puppies, as well as photographs and a personalized quilt, created by inmates for each puppy.

"I try to imagine the veteran that this puppy will help, and I pray that I helped make sure he is a good puppy for that veteran," Wilson said.