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SCI Dallas inmates train puppies to become service dogs for veterans

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DALLAS, LUZERNE COUNTY (WOLF) -- “Back, up, down, sit, settle.”

Those commands are all in a day’s work for Quinn.

The 11-month-old Labrador Retriever has spent much of his life receiving training at SCI Dallas.

His primary handler, Kyle, is an inmate in the medium-security facility.

“I thought well why not, I got some time to do. Its long enough to train a dog or two,” Kyle said.

Kyle and fellow inmate Brett both heard about a new program the prison was offering – the chance to train a puppy that will go on to become a service dog for a veteran.

Both being Marine Corps veterans, they decided to apply.

“Being on the Veterans Service Unit, you get to thinking about your fellow comrades and what better way to serve my time in here than to be serving some of my own,” Brett said.

The puppy training program at SCI Dallas is part of America’s VetDog’s Prison Puppy Program and the only one in Pennsylvania.

Inmates must complete a long application and vetting process before being chosen to become dog handlers.

Honorably discharged veterans are given preference, but anyone can apply.

Officials at SCI Dallas say since the program last December, hundreds of its 2150 inmates have applied, but only a few are selected.

The facility currently has seven dogs and two handlers are assigned per dog, a primary and secondary.

The puppies arrive when they’re about 8 weeks old.

“They spend about 12 to 14 months inside the institution, and they learn all different commands that they would be using as service dogs,” Ann Verbyla, Unit Manager at SCI Dallas, said.

When the puppy gets a little older he or she starts learning more advanced commands like opening a door, picking up wallets and credit cards off the floor, and turning on lights.

After leaving the prison, the puppy goes to America’s VetDog’s facility in Smithtown, New York to receive even more training.

“Occasionally we’ll have a dog go into a guide dog program, but the majority will be strictly service dogs. Occasionally if the dog has the right temperament, we’ll pre-match that dog to go into a PTSD program,” Field Instructor Stephen Lavallee said.

Then, after a few more months of training, the dog is placed with a veteran – at no cost to them.

But the costs of raising and training the puppy is about $50,000.

Most of that money comes from donations, and Bucci Laser Vision is one of those donors.

The business aims to raise $6,000 as a puppy sponsor, name the puppy before it begins its training, and bring community awareness to the program that gives both the puppy and its handler a sense of purpose.

“Throughout the military community, you know, no man left behind. So me having returned from a couple theatres with all my limbs intact, I feel lucky and grateful, but I want to help the guys that, you know, suffered disabilities,” Kyle said.

And after Quinn graduates in a few months, Kyle and Brett will begin the process all over again.

“I believe I should have enough time to train one more, and then hopefully I’ll be able to go home,” Kyle said.

Bucci Laser Vision is taking tax-deductible donations for America’s Vet Dogs to assist in the first year of a service puppy’s expenses.

Donations can be made at https://www.vetdogs.org/AV/HowToHelp/CommunityFundraising/Bucci_Vision.aspx. More information about America's VetDogs can be found at https://www.vetdogs.org/.

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