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03-20-08, 02:54 PM #1
Inmates train dogs to help wounded Marines with chores
One day, the six dogs will do amazing things.
They will load laundry in washing machines and they will pull it out of dryers. They will perform simple banking transactions.
They will even be able to open the refrigerator on command, select a cold beer — yes, just like that dream-come-true TV commercial — and bring it to their grateful owner.
For now, though, the dogs are locked in the Camp Lejeune brig. And so are the young Marines who are training the dogs, which will eventually be donated to Marines badly wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan to help them regain some independence.
Civilian prisoners have been used for the labor-intensive task of training service dogs to help disabled owners since 1981. The new program at Lejeune is believed to be the first in a military prison. Base officials said they were willing to do it because the dogs will help disabled Marines, and because studies have shown that working with dogs helps rehabilitate prisoners, calming them and improving their attitudes.
Prisoners in the program said in interviews that the dogs turned days of tedium into lives with focus, allowed them to contribute at least a little to the country they let down, and even given them back self-respect they left outside.
"I'd still be doing laundry and anything I could to keep my mind from dwelling on the past," said Mark, a compact 23-year-old who is halfway through a sentence of about two years. (Under the rules for interviews in the brig, prisoners could give only their first names and ages, and weren't allowed to name their offenses).
As Mark talked, Dixon, a stocky, mellow English Labrador retriever that he and another Marine are helping train, lay calmly at his feet.
"People don't give them the respect they deserve," Mark said. "They think they're stupid, but dogs can really do some great things."
When he gets out, Mark said, he has decided he wants to try for a job training dogs.
A couple of bunks down, Chris, 28, and Gene, 23, sat with dark-haired Roxy, the star pupil. She was the youngest of the six dogs, just 10 months old, but was ahead of all the others in learning the early lessons.
Roxy will leave the brig before Gene, who has three years to go, but after Chris, who is down to just seven months.
Gene said parting with her would probably be harder on him than Chris, as he gets attached to animals easily.
Chris agreed. "The good thing is that Roxy will go on to help someone," he said. "Someone I know, most likely, because the Marines are a pretty tight community."
He bent down as Roxy watched and pulled up the left pant leg of his orange jail suit, revealing a round white scar on each side of his calf where a sniper's bullet had entered and exited.
"There was a time I could have used a dog like this myself," he said.
Mark's convoys in Iraq were hit four times with improvised bombs, he said. Gene, like Chris, had done combat deployments, too, so they all knew men who could use service dogs.
Even the dogs — by chance, most were Labrabor retrievers or lab mixes — won something by being selected for the program: Most came from shelters, and Bailey, a yellow lab, was adopted the day he was scheduled to be killed. The civilian trainers who have been teaching the Marines how to work with the dogs were told Bailey was taken to the shelter by a young Marine who was going off to war.
Even those who weren't shelter dogs came out ahead. Dixon was donated by owners who used to show him. He had spent most of his life locked in a kennel. Now he has more spring in his step, more a feeling of purpose, said Mark.
Rick Hairston, who owns a Wilmington, N.C., company called Carolina Canines that trains service dogs for civilians, proposed the training program to Lejeune leaders. He said that he hopes it will become a model for military prisons around the country, and that it will help meet at least part of the huge need for service dogs among the thousands of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The idea started when a local Veterans of Foreign Wars ladies auxiliary group approached him to ask for help in getting a dog for an injured National Guard soldier, Hairston said.
Training a service dog is labor intensive — it can take two years or more of daily work — and there was no other way his small company could boost its production, he said. It already had a two- to three-year wait for its dogs.
For now, he's paying the costs of sending two civilian trainers to the base several times a week, the vet bills and other expenses, but he's hoping that veterans' groups, businesses and others will eventually help and that perhaps one day the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs also will chip in.
The prisoners were enthusiastic about the idea, Nolan said, with more than 100 asking to be included.
The dogs bunk with their trainers in an austere, concrete-floored room, their cages placed between the steel cots of their two trainers. Every four hours, one of the men has to take the dog outside to go to the bathroom, and the dog goes with them to meals and anywhere else they have to go.
Some of the training is done inside, some outdoors.
The 11 prisoners picked for the program have only been in it a few weeks, and weren't problem inmates before, but they clearly are better behaved, said Warrant Officer John Nolan, second in command at the brig.
More than 100 prisoners wanted to sign up for the program, Nolan said. A social worker helped screen the best choices.
Those with discipline problems or major offenses were kept out. Those picked typically didn't have minor offenses, either, because the trainers wanted them to have at least seven months left on their sentences so the dogs wouldn't have to switch trainers too often. The men in the training program had been charged with things such as theft or drug offenses, he said.
When the dogs are ready, they will have learned more than 70 tasks, from "handling" laundry to pulling their owners' wheelchairs around and switching lights on and off. In some cases, the owners will literally lean on the dogs, relying on them to help with their balance as they do things such as getting in or out of a wheelchair, or climb steps.
At the bank, they can do things such as take a withdrawal slip and identification card from an owner who can't reach up from a wheelchair, carry it to the counter, place their front paws on the counter and lean forward to hand it to the teller. Then, they can accept the cash and bring it to their owner.
Hairston said that some of the things the dogs can do seem startling. But they aren't tricks.
"If it's something you can't do for yourself all of a sudden, it's not a funny trick any more," he said. "Some of them are fancy skills, and some are mundane, but if you can't do them, and you get a dog that can, it makes a huge difference. It gives you a measure of independence back."
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
By Jay Price
The News & Observer
8:45 AM CDT, March 20, 2008
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.
03-21-08, 02:31 AM #2
It sounds like a great program. They used to have one like that in Wisconsin, but it became a Union/Management issue so they discontinued it.For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.
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