SOMERS - Four service dogs graduated from their training bound to help veterans in need.
The dogs are raised from the time there about eight-weeks-old by their inmate handlers. They are taught how to do everything for day-to-day life beginning with getting dressed in the morning to turning on lights.
"I have yet to see a program that is better equipped to prepare a dog for a disabled client," said Mark Tyler.
Tyler is a trainer from America's VetDogs. He helps train the 13 dogs with help from 26 inmate handlers. All of which are partnered to help give back to veterans in need.
Four of the service dogs graduated from the 14-month program. They shed their yellow training vest for their new uniform.
"Honestly it feels good," said Warden of the Osborn Correctional Institution Nick Rodriguez. "You get that warm fuzzy feeling because you see something from the beginning and see them develop."
The dogs are provided by America’s VetDogs. A group that presents four-legged companions specially trained to help enhance mobility and renew independence for hundreds of veterans across the country. Most applications are for service dogs specialized in mitigating the effects of PTSD.
"We realize so many people are coming back with other disabilities we need to branch out to help serve the veteran population," said Tyler.
VetDogs turned to the prison population. There are 14 facilities along the East coast. The most successful of which resides at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers Connecticut. The only one in the state.
Once a week, the dogs and inmates attend an intensive training class. For the remainder of the week, the inmates practice their lessons with their canine partners. Over the weekend, volunteers take them out of the facility to expose the dogs to real world scenarios.
The dogs are taught skills to help ease the burden of ever day life. From waking up in the morning to opening doors. They are even trained to grab a tissue when you sneeze. The dogs give independence and confidence back to their future life-long owner.
"It’s kind of hard to walk around with puppies around and be mad," said inmate handler Devante Pickett.
Pickett’s life was changed when he met his first service dog, Magic. Pickett found the dog in his cell and instantly fell in love. Since then, the program has provided him with his first job experience and something positive to look forward to.
"I messed up but doing this, I'm giving back in little bits and pieces and helping save a veterans life," said Pickett.
While providing offenders a chance to right their wrongs.
"The dog comes in and doesn’t care what they’ve done in the past," said Tyler. "It cares about who they are today. They are kind, their compassionate and that’s a relationship that I don’t think they will share with another human for the rest of their lives."
From here the dogs get specialized training to be prepared for their future home with a veteran. This program has been so successful that they hope to expand to more prisons in the State.
If you would like to get involved with VetDogs, you can learn more at VetDogs.org.