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Inmates in PAWS program train service dogs for veterans

January 19, 2019

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Timothy Gray hasn’t been in Iraq for years, but his time in combat with the U.S. National Guard still affects him. His back and shoulder injuries make it hard to change positions, especially moving from sitting to standing — but mostly he is overwhelmed by what’s in his head. The night terrors. The anxiety. The panic that comes with a simple trip to the grocery store.

For four years, Gray had his self-trained service dog at his side, helping him get through the daily aftermath of his time at war, but in October the dog’s cancer left the Gonzales man alone.

“It’s been rough without him,” Gray said. “Still to this day I see demons in my sleep. . It’s difficult but with the right support, it makes everything a lot easier.”

And less than two months later, Gray found a surprising place — the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — to provide him with just the support he needs.

There, a group of inmates is training rescue dogs to be service animals to help veterans like Gray deal with day-to-day activities like taking medication or navigating crowded rooms and handle the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injuries or other physical injuries.

And it was there that Gray met Magnum, his new highly-trained service dog and companion.

“He is huge,” Gray said, laughing as he crouched down to meet the large, black animal, who was a rescue. ”(He) gives me life back.”

Magnum, a black Labrador/mastiff mix, worked with an inmate for about a year, becoming trained in more than 30 obedience commands and seven tasks, some specific to the needs of Gray, said Maj. Keavin Tanner, who runs the service dog academy for the Department of Corrections. The dog is trained to wake Gray up if he’s having a nightmare, intervene when it senses Gray is becoming anxious and be a brace for Gray when stands up.

Tanner, the prison’s unofficial “dog whisperer,” works at least once a week with the dogs and inmates, all of whom volunteered to be in the PAWS programs — Prisoners Assisting Warriors Service. He said they slowly build on the progress the trainers make each week as they work and live with their dogs. Gray was the third veteran to receive a service dog from the program since it kicked off in July 2017. All the dogs come from the Department of Corrections PenPals program, a shelter for rescued animals at the Dixon Correctional Center in Jackson.

The PAWS program operates solely on donations and volunteer work, with the support of the corrections department, but no state funding.

“It’s a win-win, for the animal, for the inmate and for whoever ends up with the dog,” said state Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc. “It’s a really unique opportunity for everyone.”

Stevenson Strogen is currently training Magnum’s brother Scott, and they’ve already developed a unique bond, spending almost every hour of the day together.

“It’s taught me a lot about responsibility,” Strogen, 36, said. “I got into this program to help a veteran, so although I may want (to keep the dog), I know someone needs him.”

Like most of the inmates at Angola, Strogen is serving a life sentence; he was convicted of second-degree murder almost two decades ago. But he said being a part of PAWS has felt like a positive way to spend his time in prison — and this program hits close to home for him.

“This has been awesome. My mom’s a veteran (of the) Air Force, and my little sister is currently active duty in the Army,” Strogen said, “so I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to give back to society, helping people who risk their lives every day.”

And Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy said he can see the difference the dogs are making around the prison. Right now, only about a dozen dogs are in the program, but as the program expands, Vannoy hopes to keep some of the trained dogs at the prison to support and give comfort to those inmates who could most benefit, like those with disciplinary issues or mental illness.

“I can see the difference in a lot of these guys,” Vannoy said. “It gives them a sense of self-worth; they’re proud of what they do. We’re proud of them. We’re so happy we can help a veteran and serve the country. This is Angola’s way of giving back.”

As Gray spent the rest of the day with the inmates and employees who trained Magnum learning about his capabilities and building a connection, it seemed like the veteran started to relax. Gray joked with his wife about how much room the dog will now take up in their bed. At times Gray would almost remove himself from the conversation, simply absorbing the comfort of his new right-hand ‘man.’

“To me, dog is God spelled backward,” Gray said. “The closest thing you can get to God’s love is a dog.”

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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