- Associated Press - Sunday, July 5, 2015

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - A group of Florida prisoners are training therapy dogs for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as part of a new program.

Prisoners from the Blackwater River Correctional Facility will train three puppies for America’s Vet Dogs Veteran’s K-9 Corps with plans to expand to 10 dogs by the end of the year. The training program will teach the K-9s to do everything from retrieving medication, to turning lights on and off, to waking veterans from nightmares.

“It’s hard to put into words what Isaiah and other dogs do for us veterans,” said U.S. Army veteran Jeff Casper. “…That’s the part of healing that doctors can’t do.”

Casper was injured when a pair of roadside bomb exploded, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury, breaking his back and ending his military career. He’s endured 30 surgeries and struggles with constant pain, anger and depression. He said he felt like he didn’t have much to live for at all.

But that changed when he was given his service dog, Isaiah, and found new purpose in caring for her again.

The Pensacola News-Journal (https://tinyurl.com/pvp6gpy) reports the prisoners care for the puppies five days a week providing basic obedience and behavior training, as well as feeding and exercising the pups during the roughly year-long program. The dogs go with community volunteers on weekends to get real world experience like shopping trips and car rides.

The veterans organizations says the prisoners are able to train the dogs faster which allows the organization to place more dogs more quickly and prison officials say the dogs boost morale and improve behavior among prisoners. Blackwater officials say disciplinary issues are down 90 percent in the housing area where the dogs and trainers live.

“One inmate was able to pet one of the dogs and he broke down and cried, because it was the first time he had been able to pet a dog in 12 years,” said Scott A. Middlebrooks, warden at Blackwater. “It reminds him of that human element that you miss in here. It’s an incentive to do the right thing and stay out of trouble.”

The puppy handlers are also vets themselves, so the program gives them a chance to give back to their brothers and sisters in the military, the warden said.

“My life would be so very different and difficult without Isaiah,” Casper told the program participants during a ceremony last week. “…You’re literally stepping into a program that saves lives every day. Isaiah has saved mine.”

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Information from: Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, https://www.pensacolanewsjournal.com


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