America's VetDogs program makes a difference in lives of inmates and disabled veterans
Herald Mail, The

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After spending the past year training with inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, three Labrador retrievers graduated from the America's VetDogs program on Thursday and will be given to a disabled veteran in the coming weeks.

“This is truly a one-of-a-kind program that is very soon to make a difference in the lives of some veterans who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with some very serious injuries,” said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

MCI-H is the first prison in the state to get puppies in the program, which began in July, 2012, and is the first prison in the United States to have incarcerated veterans among the inmates training them, Vernarelli said.

Sporting new vests that say “America's VetDogs Veterans K-9 Corps,” the dogs demonstrated what they had learned during their time with the inmates at the presentation, including turning on lights, retrieving canes, and opening and closing doors.

“It doesn't get any better than having inmates who want to pay society back training service dogs for wounded American veterans,” Vernarelli said.

One of the graduating dogs, Trooper, was handled by inmate Kent Brewer, an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Describing Trooper as he pal, Brewer, 61, said the dog was a “small bundle of fur and puppy fat” when the two first met. He showed a picture of Trooper as a puppy, saying that he looked like a “little stuffed animal.”
He said that they have shared an “amazing journey” over the past year, and that Trooper has helped him go through a transformation.

“Before his arrival, I spent the past 18 years in a kind of self-imposed isolation,” he said. “Before, I was alone, now I have a best friend, a kindred spirit, a brother.”

Brewer said that Trooper had to learn basic commands such as name recognition, eye contact, sitting, standing and lying down, in addition to the advanced commands.

He said that working with Trooper has been a “wonderful experience.”

“It's really instilled some type of confidence in me and myself,” he said. “It made me value living more.”

The inmates have spent the past year working with trainer Kathy Levick to teach the dogs.

Levick said after the ceremony that the training has been a “struggle” but also “phenomenal.”

“I'm amazed at how hard the inmates have worked with the dogs, and how much dedication they've put into the program,” she said. “They've really taken it seriously.”

Levick said that she was not sure about the program when it first started.

“I wasn't sure how much they really wanted to do this, how into it they were, but they have proven to me that they are respectful, they're dedicated, and they're just so willing to do anything I ask them to do,” she said. “It's really impressive.”
As part of the program, the dogs have been going home with volunteer families on the weekends to experience home and social life.

Levick said they will spend the next four weeks in Long Island, N.Y., for advanced training before they are given to a disabled veteran as a permanent owner.

Brewer described Trooper's departure as a “two-headed sword.”

“I've completed my mission, but my heart is full of sorrow at my friend's departure,” he said. “I sure will miss Trooper, but when all is said and done, it comes down to helping the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
As the three dogs departed, four new puppies were brought into the prison for training.