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Maryland prisoners train service dogs for veterans

Within the stone walls of the Maryland Correctional Institution, Kent Brewer braced for the end he knew was coming. The inmate began to sneak pieces of sausage out of the cafeteria for his roommate, speaking to him in sentimental tones and succumbing to emotions he forgot existed.

"I just want to get down and bawl," Brewer said.

The prison is filled with about 1,080 inmates, but none has ever been there for Brewer like Trooper, a 68-pound Labrador retriever. Trooper accepts his fate — as his name suggests. Frequent wags of his thick, black tail show he doesn't mind sharing a room that's slightly larger than a high school shower stall.

Trooper — one of 24 Labrador retrievers fostered by inmates as part of a program to provide service animals for wounded veterans — has boarded with Brewer for a little more than 12 months. "He's my child, a brother," said the gray-haired man, who has been locked up for almost two decades for murder.

Officials at the medium security prison, about an hour and a half northwest of Baltimore, say inmates make the best trainers because they have something many other potential trainers do not: unlimited time. The dogs, meanwhile, have livened up the institution's bare, bleach-scented corridors.

Most of all, inmates say, the dogs have transformed hardened criminals into empathetic souls with soft hearts. The dogs have helped the inmates pass the days of their sentences with a sense of purpose, and have brought them and their supervisors closer.

The program, however, a donation-funded partnership between the state corrections department and America's VetDogs, comes with one agonizing catch. After a year, the men must relinquish the animals they raised, a bittersweet moment that for Brewer came last week.

"I've been ... allowing him to get away with more, like getting on the bed, sleeping on the bed. Basically he can do what he wants," said Brewer, 61. In November 1995, he confessed to a priest that he had killed a man in Aberdeen and asked for help turning himself in. Convicted of first-degree murder, he is serving a 25-year sentence.

Inmates in the program with America's VetDogs, which has provided war veterans trained service and therapy dogs for a decade, cannot have had disciplinary adjustments in their level of supervision for a year or any incidents of assault, weapons or fighting for two years.

Like other prospective pet owners, inmates must acknowledge what they're getting into. Program guidelines stipulate: "Willing to train dog. Willing to clean up after dog. Willing to bathe dog and to have dog sleep in cell."

The men work with a VetDogs trainer weekly to teach the dogs at least 30 commands. Dogs are taught to use their muzzles to flip on light switches. They pull open filing cabinets. They pick up canes.

Trooper can ferry eggs in his mouth without crushing them, and can pick up Brewer's glasses by the stem so the lenses are free of slobber.

Kathy Levick, a VetDogs trainer, said she begins by teaching the men the basics of obedience training and having them understand their dogs' body language. As the dogs earn praise and rewards, the success rubs off on the inmates.

Levick said of the men: "You see confidence coming out of them."

The dogs are also taught restraint, like ignoring a treat on the ground at the command of "leave it." Trooper demonstrated that last week, staring obediently at Brewer even as fellow trainee Jackpot, a tan Lab, stole his treat. "Leave it" was the hardest thing for Trooper to learn, Brewer said.

As the dog heads to a more advanced training phase outside the prison, the change is something Brewer has had a difficult time learning.

This is the dog, after all, who has nuzzled him awake at 4:30 a.m. each day. "Usually wants to eat," Brewer said. He even brought Brewer his shoes.

While Brewer will help train another puppy, he knows it won't be the same. Brewer, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, reminds himself over and over of his goal.

"He's going to make an excellent dog for some veteran," he said. "He's a top dog."

Prison warden Wayne Webb said the program has prepared for separation anxiety, but he understands how hard the goodbyes can be.

"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

twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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