DAYTONA BEACH – The Florida Department of Corrections has started a unique program, a collaboration with the U.S. Veterans Administration, in an effort to assist soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The idea: to train dogs that can live as companions to the soldiers, assisting them with daily tasks and helping to make their lives a bit easier.
“We’re working with the Veterans Administration now, and we’re going to do a one year pilot program with them for PTSD veterans coming back home,” said Corrections Officer Gail Irwin.
Irwin works at the Tomoka Correctional Institute, a prison work camp in Daytona Beach that operates Prison Pups N Pals. The program brings dogs out of local humane shelters and transfers them into Tomoka. Inmates learn how to provide obedience training to the dogs, in an effort to make them more relaxed and comfortable around people, and therefore easier for families to adopt them. Otherwise, many of the dogs which have been abused or neglected are afraid of people and it’s difficult to find a home willing to take them in.
Now Pups N Pals is being expanded, and moving in a very different direction, Irwin said. Instead of having the dogs trained to be more obedient around people, so families will want to adopt them, now the dogs will be trained to perform a variety of tasks that will help veterans, Irwin said.
For those veterans who require assistance, the dogs will be trained to do everything from turning on a light to opening a door for them.
The dogs also provide a calming influence on the veterans, Irwin added, particularly those who will be living alone.
“That’s one of their main fears when they come home,” she said. “They’re afraid someone is in there. It’s to keep them safe in the head.”
The web site MayoClinic.com defines PTSD as “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and taking care of yourself, such traumatic reactions usually get better.”
The symptoms, the site notes, can “last for months or even years.”
The new program will provide dogs as companions for those veterans struggling with PTSD, and expanding it from Pups N Pals seemed like a natural next step, said Angela Gordon, the prison’s assistant warden.
“We’re very proud of our program, which continues to expand and grow,” she said, adding that the dogs brought to the prison from the Halifax Humane Society will be trained by the inmates at Tomoka to provide a variety of services to the veterans.
“It’s everything from turning on lights and answering the phone to simply providing companionship and love to the veterans,” she said.
On Thursday, Tomoka held its 9th graduating class consisting of 10 dogs that had completed the seven-week obedience training by the inmates. At least one of the dogs, Buster, will transfer into the new VA training program.
“This is Buster, and he’s going to be staying with us another seven weeks, and learning some of the things we do with the Veterans Administration program,” Irwin said.
“I’m very excited about this,” said Allyn Weigel, who runs the West Volusia Kennel Club – which provides dogs for the Pups N Pals program and will do the same for the veteran outreach program.
“If this works out, this will help all of the soldiers coming back from the Middle East,” he said. “We are not going to let this program ever fail.”
James A. Quarterman, an inmate who is serving a five year sentence at Tomoka for fleeing law enforcement, has been one of the inmate supervisors of the Pups N Pals program. Quarterman said he hopes they have as much to be proud of with the veterans training program as they’ve had with Pups N Pals, which has achieved a 100 percent adoption rate.
“Hopefully,” Quarterman said, “our successes will continue.”
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