Inmates train dogs for service to those who have served their country
03/12/2013
Herald-Mail - Online

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HAGERSTOWN -- Grover, a dog in the America's VetDogs Program at Maryland Correctional Institution- Hagerstown , is not 8 months old yet but already has learned to pick up objects, and sit, lay down, or stand on command.

"He is a very affectionate dog," said MCI-H Inmate James Dyson, one of Grover's handlers. "No matter what type of mood you're in, he feels the same way every day. He's always happy."

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Dyson, 32, who has been incarcerated at MCI-H since 1999, demonstrated Grover's ability to understand commands at a presentation Tuesday.

He said that working with the dog has connected him to his childhood.

"I grew up with dogs my whole life," he said. "Twenty-four hours a day I'm around Grover. I love training him."

Grover is one of eight dogs that inmates at the prison are training for wounded and disabled military veterans under the America's VetDogs Program. The program began in July. Three of the dogs showed off their new skills Tuesday.

After 14 months of training, Grover will go to a permanent owner who is a disabled veteran and will be replaced with another dog to be trained.

The Ralph S. Tagg Chapter 14 of Disabled American Veterans presented a check for $2,000 to the program to show its support at the demonstrations Tuesday.

"This is a great program because it gives inmates a purpose, it helps the dogs, and there's a veteran that needs those dogs," said Jerry Barnhart, commander of the chapter. "We look forward to supporting this program for years to come."

"We decided we wanted to contribute to this because of how well the dogs are doing now," said Doug Flanigan, senior vice commander of the chapter. "We definitely want to be a part of it because we're all about disabled veterans, and we help the community with their correctional facility as well, so it's a win-win situation."

Inmate Terry Dorsey, 49, is a veteran who is handling 3-month old Delta. He said raising her has been a "real good experience," one that requires a lot of work.

"It's a 24-hour-a-day job," he said. "You've got to constantly watch the dog because if not, anything can happen."

The inmates are training the dogs under the leadership of Kathy Levick, the service dog instructor. Levick said the dogs will learn more advanced commands before their training ends.

"Going forward now, we'll be turning on light switches, pushing handicap buttons, opening doors, and whatever else the future handlers are going to be needing," she said. "We start at such a young age because as puppies, their minds are just sponges, so everything that we can get in now as they're young will become such a habit as they're older."

Lt. Robert Shoemaker, a correctional officer at MCI, said morale has increased among the inmates in the program.

"We're looking at this as a tool that they can use when they get out, too," he said.

The dogs are supposed to be taken home to foster families every weekend to gain experience in family life, but three new puppies still do not have foster families, Shoemaker said.