Md. inmates raise service dogs for fellow veterans

HAGERSTOWN, Md. – Inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution are seeing their babies graduate – three dogs the inmates have raised to be service animals for veterans.

It’s a bittersweet day for Kent Brewer seeing his dog, Trooper, graduate. He’s trained the black lab for over a year.

“Trooper has been my friend. It’s going to be hard to see him go,” Brewer says, getting emotional.

Brewer says that before he became a dog handler he was unsure of how he was spending his life, his time in prison.

Incarcerated since 1995, the former Coast Guard veteran says being able to give back and help another veteran in need gives his life purpose.

Working with America’s Vet Dogs program, two inmates are assigned as handlers to a dog – teaching them the essential commands required of a service animal.

“Right now he can open refrigerators, pick up a raw egg and hand it to you. He’s what they call a soft-mouth dog. He opens doors, push buttons, turns on lights and gives you companionship,” Brewer says of Trooper.

The idea of bringing dogs into a prison was not instantly welcomed, but Warden Wayne Webb says the dogs have changed the environment in the medium – security prison.

“It’s almost like they’re learning to love a child that they’ve never done before,” Webb says. “They’re learning to take care of something.”

Inmates show what the graduating dogs can do

The inmates chosen to participate in the program are among the best behaved in the facility and have earned a place in the north dorm. Inmates there have a more relaxed lifestyle and access to the outdoors.

“The inmate population here is pretty much in honor housing, so they have the ability to take the dogs in and out as they need to be,” Webb says.

“The dogs aren’t confined to a cell.”

Inmates are selected to be service dog handlers by the prison staff. They cannot have any disciplinary reports on their record and have to be somewhat active, says Andrew Rubenstein with America’s Vet Dogs.

“Each prison goes through a different qualification process. Once they pick the pool of inmates we want to participate in the program, we have our local trainer come down and do a Q and A with them,” Rubenstein says.

In this way, the dogs’ safety is considered, he says.

During the weekends, volunteers take the dogs home to expose them to everyday situations such as going to the mall, a park, church or the grocery store and practicing their skills there. More volunteers are needed.

Three dogs graduated Thursday. The next graduating class will leave the prison in February.

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