"They'll never forget the first dog they've trained," said Webb, who owns a 4-year-old boxer named Maizey. "I guarantee it."

A strong bond began to develop before the 8-week-old puppies arrived at the institution's North Dorm. The first class of prisoners prepared like new parents setting up a nursery. They erected fences, hauled in gravel and dug a dog-training track. They turned a plastic feeding tub into a dog sink and built wire kennels.

"We did all that by hand," said Terry "Tree" Dorsey, 50.

The 6-foot-4 inch Dorsey, an Army veteran, is nearly halfway through a 25-year sentence for drug distribution. He kept to himself most of that time, remaining "quiet, lonely."

But his fatherly instincts kicked in when he got Delta, one of the program's few females. Dorsey, who has had five children, all daughters, said, "I got another girl here."

The inmate learned to mix different foods to get the finicky dog to eat. He spent long nights awake when Delta got worms and threw up repeatedly.

Other prisoners made fun of him when he crawled into the puppy's cage to get Delta to stop crying and sleep. "I used to be teased," he said. "But it was something I had to do."

The dog got him talking again, and her devotion reminded Dorsey that favors don't always need to be repaid.

"In prison when someone gets something," he said, "they want something in return."

Sgt. Willie Vinson, a correctional officer, sees the difference Delta has made in Dorsey. Morale is important to Vinson, who once found an inmate hanging by a bedsheet just minutes after speaking to him.

The dogs have given the inmates' lives meaning, Vinson said, adding, "They're really proud of their accomplishments."

Dorsey said his sister and aunt have told him: "At least you're making your time count." Before Delta, Dorsey had nothing to share during visits. Now, he talks about nothing else. His grandchildren say "Pop Pop" trains dogs, and that makes him tear up.

At least one inmate has been removed from the program for using his dog to manipulate outsiders into bringing him things. Some men, the warden acknowledged, don't change.

For the most part, however, a change among the prison's inmates has been evident. Men on the program's waiting list are on their best behavior. One participant even renounced his gang, officials said.

Dorsey has a few more months with Delta, but he already dreads what Brewer was facing.

"Man it's going to be hard when she leaves," Dorsey said as the dog's chin rested on his black work boots.

Brewer began preparing for the goodbye by writing a speech he planned to read at Trooper's graduation. He tried reciting it once but couldn't finish without crying.

"Before his arrival I spent the past 18 years in a kind of self-imposed isolation," the speech said. "Before I was alone, now I have a best friend — a kindred spirit … who truly needs me."

As the day of separation drew near, Brewer spoiled Trooper as much as he could. The dog loves peanut butter and Brewer has kept a jar with Trooper's name on it.

"But it's just about empty," he said. "He'll finish that before he goes."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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