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September 24, 2012

Inmates train dogs for disabled vets

CUMBERLAND  — The Western Correctional Institution welcomed some rather unusual guests on Monday as part of a national program designed to assist wounded and disabled veterans.

Through a partnership with America’s VetDogs, incarcerated veterans and other inmates at WCI will train three puppies to serve as service dogs for disabled veterans.

Similar programs will also be launched at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover.

WCI is the first maximum-security prison in the nation to implement this program.

The yellow Labrador Retriever puppies, named Yardley, Dill and Vero, will live in the cells with the inmates during the training in special metal cages lined with bedding made by inmates from the Hagerstown facility.

A large outdoor recreational area has been created by inmates, behind the housing unit for the service dogs in-training.

Training will last for one year before the service dogs “graduate” to more specific training and then eventually be placed with a disabled veteran suffering from brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations and other physical and psychological disorders. Additional dogs will join the WCI program as they become available.

Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the Maryland Department Of Public Safety and Correctional Services,  said the inmates selected to participate in the program were chosen based on their “infraction-free history and their overall good attitudes and work ethic in prison.”

“Many are incarcerated veterans, making the restorative justice element incredibly strong. You can't do better than having incarcerated veterans helping wounded American veterans,” Vernarelli said. “We are very excited about this program. The inmates and staff have done a fantastic job.”

According to Sheila O’Brien, a representative from America’s VetDogs, more than 46,000 wounded veterans have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Through this program, many of these veterans will have the support they need to lead independent lives.

During the kickoff event, DPSCS Secretary Gary Maynard explained the benefits of the partnership, saying, “It’s hard for me to imagine anything more significant than what we’re doing here today, having incarcerated veterans paying society back this way is just meaningful beyond words.”

Marine Master Sgt. Mark Gwathmey, a veteran wounded in Iraq, was also present for the ceremony, along with his own service dog, Larry. Gwathmey suffers from a seizure disorder caused by explosions during his third tour of duty. Larry, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is a seizure-alert service dog and is credited with saving his master’s life on three different occasions.

America’s VetDogs is a nonprofit organization founded by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind to serve the needs of disabled veterans and individuals who are visually impaired.

In response to the growing number of veterans returning  with disabilities, America’s VetDogs was founded in 2003. America’s VetDogs works with the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs, setting the the standard by which the military  measures assistance dog schools.

Each prospective service dog is carefully evaluated and must meet stringent health, safety and training standards. The needs of the veteran are considered during the training process to ensure his/her needs can be met in the best possible manner.

Contact Angie Brant at

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