The stat might surprise you, but eight percent of all prison inmates are made up of military veterans, many of whom are still suffering from the ill effects of PTSD. According to The Hill, the Bureau of Justice Statistics assesses that more than 180,000 U.S. military veterans representing all branches are incarcerated for one reason or another in both state and federal penitentiaries. About 77 percent of these imprisoned vets were released from the military with an honorable or general discharge under honorable conditions. Half of these veterans are said to suffer from mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
One warden is looking to change the disturbing dynamic of veteran inmates behind bars by enlisting rescued shelter dogs. Thomas Winn, the Superintendent of the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan is said to be attempting to improve the quality of prison life for veteran inmates by training them to be dog handlers. Thus far the program, Michigan Dogs of Correction, has been a resounding success while the partnership between dog and veteran inmate is said to be helping the prisoners avoid the problems that led to their incarceration.
The dogs, many of which are rescued as puppies, aren’t just treated as pets that are cuddled and petted. The veteran inmates are learning how to train them to be disciplined support/therapy dogs, which is said to be a long-term benefit to both dog and handler. According to Little Puppy Training, an e-Course dog training firm that supports instilling discipline in dogs as puppies, the current trend in dog training is 100 percent positive reinforcement. But while this might sound like a “warm and fuzzy” approach to raising your dog, it will also leave the owner afraid to discipline their puppy when it’s required. The result will almost always be an out-of-control animal who actually believes he or she is in charge. Says, Little Puppy Training, “Your puppy doesn’t really want to be the Alpha in your family, but instinct will lead her there if you don’t take the top spot lovingly but firmly from day one.”
That’s where military service comes in. Vets have been trained to understand the value of discipline and they can apply this to their training of the rescue dogs. They not only provide love for their dogs, but they train them to be obedient. At the same time, the veterans undergo crucial therapy for their PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury.
The Hill reports that the veteran-focused dog training program is an example of how troubled vets and their families can apply service-related experiences that will have a positive impact on their communities. Through Winn’s vision, and other corrections officials like him, shelter dogs are rescued rather than euthanized and vets can learn a vocational skill that’s a part of “a larger mission.” The dogs are fed well, treated with love and kindness, and trained professionally. They also spend 24 hours a day with their incarcerated veteran handlers who are required to provide written documentation of their progress.
As a general rule, incarcerated felons are required to oblige by a policy of “no touch.” But in order to train their rescue dogs they naturally must touch them. The touch creates a physical bond for both veteran inmate and rescue dog. In the end, you have a happier, more productive inmate and you have a happier, more disciplined rescue dog turned therapy dog.
Says one Marine who was willing to open up about his military deployment experience, he recalls having to pick up human remains on a battlefield and store them in body bags. Some of the remains might have belonged to friends of his. When he finally arrived home, he tried to deal with the PTSD that resulted from his war-time encounters on his own. As his moods spiraled into long-term depression, he kept asking himself over and over, “Why did I live?”
Since there is no answer to that question, he turned to alcohol as an escape. Now serving a life-sentence for an alcohol related vehicular homicide, the Marine is training rescue puppies and dogs while assisting other troubled vets with avoiding the same consequences that he faced.
Superintendent Winn sums up his feelings about the program by claiming “incredible reductions in misconduct from the inmates, a sense of pride and unity among veteran prisoners and an incredible commitment and care for the dogs.” A win-win story for dog and veteran to be sure.