Veterans adopt dogs trained by Illinois inmates

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FILE – This Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 file photo shows a Shetland sheepdog at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York. A study published Thursday, June 6, 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that dogs owners experiencing long bouts of stress can actually transfer the stress to their dogs like a contagious infection. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

VIENNA, Ill. (AP) — Inmates at a Southern Illinois corrections facility are training dogs from a shelter and giving them to veterans.

Six dogs graduated Thursday from the 12-week training program at the Shawnee Correctional Center in Vienna, the Southern Illinoisan reported. The Shawnee Wellness Assistance Therapy Training Program has been up and running for a year.

Angela Galbraith, the correctional center’s program director, brings in a new group of inmates every 90 days to work with the animals provided by Project Hop, a local no-kill animal shelter. Dog trainers from outside guide the inmates in their training.

Lt. Nicole Justice, a behavioral health officer for the Army National Guard, said veterans need companionship upon returning home and a well-trained dog is a tremendous gift.

After reading the soldier’s doctrine, a mission statement for military members regarding their responsibility to themselves and their country, Justice asked a question.

“But who guards us when we get home?” She said many veterans return home and struggle to find purpose, and suffer from unseen wounds.

Galbraith said the program has had a considerable impact on the inmates involved with canine training, but was hesitant to speak too much for the men.

“They’re the ones doing all the work,” she said.

Robert Hunter, an inmate, served in the U.S. Army from 1973 to 1976 where he was based in Panama. Hunter said he’s been in other programs at the correctional facility, including jobs in the kitchen, but noted the dog training program stands out.

“It’s given me more hope,” he said, adding that training the black medium-sized dog Sampson also gave him more patience. “Unfortunately there’s not enough of this,” he said of prison programming aimed at reforming the soul of the inmate.

Jennifer Johnson watched her husband, Matt Johnson, smile radiantly over Sampson when Hunter brought him over.

“I think this is going to give him a sense of being,” she said.

Jennifer said her husband returned from a tour in the Middle East in 2009 with a traumatic brain injury and other issues and she’s hoping Sampson will help ease that stress.

“He’s going to help out a lot,” said Matt.

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