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Handlers and dogs live together. Bosar and his handler begin their day at 5:30 a.m. working on some of the more than 90 commands Bosar has to learn.

“Everything we do is positive reinforcement. There can be no negative reinforcement in the program,” Rick Hairston said.

What seems as a game of tug of war with a worn and tattered piece of rope between Bosar and his handler is actually helping him to learn a valuable skill. It translates in the ability to open doors like a refrigerator with a rope attached to it.

The veterans who receive service dogs like Bosar do so at no cost. They must first submit an application and a video that is used to determine if they can benefit from a service dog. If approved, the veteran is placed on a waiting list.

Since the program’s beginning in 2008, thirty service dogs have been placed with a veteran. In 2013, out of the 18 applications submitted for a service dog, four were approved and placed with a veteran.

“As we progress with the training of the dogs, we assess what the dog does well and who the dog might be the best match for,” Pat said.

If the dog will be used to assist with balance, for example, the height and weight of the recipient is taken in to account to ensure the dog is matched to the person’s size.

Once a veteran and a dog have been paired together team training begins. The veteran spends a week in Charleston learning commands and practicing with the dog.

“Team training is where we start teaching the veteran how to utilize the service dog,” Rick said. “From working inside the walls of the brig to going out in public to restaurants, it’s a very intense week of training to make sure the veteran is going to have everything they need to be successful.”

The Hairstons seek out adoptable dogs from pet rescues through Southeastern North Carolina, including Adopt an Angel and R.A.C.E. Canines for Service is the only Assistance Dogs International-accredited organization in North Carolina and one of fewer than 60 in the United States.

“We begin looking for a dog when we have a need, either because a new prisoner is coming in or because a dog has been placed,” Pat said.

To be considered, dogs must weigh a minimum of 50 pounds and be at least 23 inches tall at the shoulders. Any signs of aggression will disqualify a dog. One of the biggest factors in deciding on whether to accept a dog into the program is money.

The federal government provides no financial assistance to Canines for Veterans. Leashes, bowls, food, collar, travel to and from Charleston, and instructional time with the prisoners all adds up. Before Rick Hairston agrees to accept a dog, he has to answer one question: Is he willing to invest $25,000 in it?

“All that is provided is the prisoners and the housing for the inmates,” he said. “Everything else we have to provide. We operate off of corporate sponsorships, grants - pretty much anything you can beg, borrow and steal from in order to get funding to make the programs work. If there is any hesitation on that, we have to pass on the dog.”

Fundraising plays a big role in providing service dogs to veterans and civilians. One such fundraiser is the eighth annual 2014 Walk & Dog Dash on March 29 at Hugh MacRae Park in Wilmington. Last year, the event came in under organizers’ goal of $60,000, raising $40,000.

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