Brig inmates will train dogs to assist wounded veterans

Titus, a yellow lab mix, retrieves a prosthetic leg Wednesday as commanded by trainer Rick Hairston at the Naval Consolidated Brig. Titus was trained by Carolina Canines for Service to perform tasks for wounded veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Titus, a skinny yellow Lab mix with loving dark eyes, scooped a dime off the gym floor with his teeth before proudly marching back to his handler.

It was a neat trick. But the seriousness of what Titus is trained for came through when he tried to balance a cumbersome, 10-pound prosthetic leg in his jaws. "If he doesn't put it right in my hand, I have him repeat the task," trainer Rick Hairston said.

Titus' appearance at the Naval Consolidated Brig on Wednesday kicked off a new mission behind the wire where incarcerated servicemen will begin training service dogs for America's "wounded warriors," mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the course of hundreds of hours, brig prisoners will become skilled in teaching dogs simple tasks, such as finding a TV remote control, retrieving drinks from inside a refrigerator, picking up car keys or loading a washing machine one garment at a time.

They also will learn more vital missions that border on mini-rescues: acting as a balance when someone falls and needs help standing up, or finding a quick path out of a crowded room when bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder suddenly arise.

Advocates see multiple benefits in the program beyond helping wounded vets, with prisoners learning job skills and dogs rescued from kennels getting a second chance. Even the notion of canines having a calming effect on incarcerated men is considered a bonus.

"It's contagious," said Cmdr. Raymond Drake, commanding officer at the brig. "A dog brings out the best in people. It's man's best friend for a reason."

Service dogs for wounded military men and women have been around for decades, yet the effort is a new one for Charleston's military prisoners. The brig's program is a meshing of Carolina Canines for Service, a civilian group, and Carolina Canines for Veterans, a military group.

Until recently the program had been based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., but the effort was shifted to the brig under the most recent base realignment.

In the coming weeks, inmates from Camp Lejeune will move to Charleston to get the basic training started. The first crop of dogs will number about seven.

Supporters hope as many as 20 service dogs at a time will eventually be living with brig inmates, learning their commands and tasks that cover everything from pushing elevator buttons to getting dressed and opening doors and cabinets.

Inmates are selected as trainers based on their demeanor, crimes and length of incarceration. Training just one dog can take as many as 2,000 hours.

During his demonstration Wednesday, Titus responded to a simple laser-pointer Hairston directed on objects he wanted retrieved, including a plastic soda bottle and a briefcase. The training is valued at $40,000 per animal and is donated by Carolina Canines.

Hairston, the group's president and CEO, said a dog's training can be customized to suit a particular war injury.

He recalled one military officer wounded in Bosnia who lost sight in her left eye. Her service dog was trained to always work from the left, her weak side. The individual who trained her dog also was made to wear an eye patch so he could relate to her one-sided blindness.

In another training method designed for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, dogs are taught to mark a 3-foot space around someone by walking in a leashed circle, clearing people away who might be crowding the individual.

Other dogs that will work with paraplegics learn to work around wheelchairs. Veterans are solicited nationally and can register via Carolina Canines website.

Not all the shelter-dog recruits make the cut. Titus, for instance, won't ever be placed with a veteran because of a dislike he shows for toddlers, especially noisy ones.

Hairston said his reward is in working with dogs every day and making the lives of wounded service people manageable after their sacrifice. But the number of wounded from the recent wars concerns him as well.

"The sad news is, I will never run out of work," he said.

Carolina Canines for Service is a nonprofit organization that trains dogs for people with disabilities. In 2008 the group began training rescue dogs from shelters to assist wounded veterans. The program began at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and has been shifted to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Hanahan.

The dogs are trained to perform more than 70 tasks, including retrieving and carrying objects, opening doors and helping with stress and balance difficulties. About seven dogs will be part of the brig's first training crop, but officials hope to have as many as 20 being trained there at a time.

Wounded veterans are solicited nationally. The organization is not connected to the U.S. military and operates on public donations. For more information see the group's website at www.carolinacanines.org.