(WESTOVER, Md.) - While it's clear America's VetDogs Program is a win-win situation for both disabled veterans and service dogs, inmates at Eastern Correctional Institution say they're also benefitting from the program.
"I would have to say that of all the programs in the Department of Corrections, this one's probably the most rewarding, because you get to see the tangible evidence of what you've been working on and the accomplishments the dog does," said Chris, ECI inmate and secondary handler.
James, another ECI inmate and secondary handler, says helping disabled veterans is the best part.
"I never really got to do things that helped other people that's [also] something I can actually say I'm proud of," said James. "There's not too many things in my life that I can say I'm proud of, and I'm actually proud of this."
Chris and James have been part of the ECI VetDogs program for five years. As secondary handlers, they spend all day and night Monday through Friday with puppies as young as eight weeks old, training them to be service dogs for disabled veterans.
"We're on scheduled routines. Things change though when they change. They get up, you might wake up, sometimes I might wake up with them in my face, they want to go play or go out," explained James.
"When they're puppies, it's a little hectic," said Chris. "You know, you have to take them out a lot more... it's almost like raising a kid."
"[America's VetDogs Program] is hands down the best restorative justice program the State of Maryland has, and like I said it's a win-win for any institution that has this program or any animal program period, but especially one that helps wounded and disabled vets," said Lt. Stephenson.
Lt. Stephenson has been leading the VetDogs Program at ECI since 2012. He says there are currently twelve select inmates participating in the program, and it's changing them for the better.
"A lot of these inmates probably never had dogs growing up, and they've never had responsibility," said Lt. P.J. Stephenson. "It's some of the reasons they might be incarcerated and this gives them something positive in their life for their family. It's definitely something they can take and use outside of here, as well."
Chris and James agree.
"It's definitely a love and marketable skill that I can use," said Chris.
"I've been incarcerated since I was 18... I'm 30 now. So, I really never had patience when I was home," said James. "Now, I've learned patience, I've learned a lot of things I might not have learned in any of the other programs."
Lt. Stephenson says six dogs are being trained at ECI, but that number could double if more people volunteer to be a "Weekend Puppy Raiser." According to the program, weekend puppy raisers are responsible for socializing the puppy as much as possible over the weekends. This includes bringing them to places like restaurants, libraries, and shopping centers. For more information or to apply, visit www.vetdogs.org.