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Inmate-trained dogs bring comfort to veterans

By: R. Norman Moody Florida Today
May 19, 2013 Updated: May 19, 2013 at 3:20 pm
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photo - Inmate William Surface, one of the two lead trainers, holds the one graduate that wasn't going home yet, since "Sammy" is too young, during the graduation ceremony for "Prison Pups N Pals", an animal shelter and inmate career training project, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. Ten dogs from the Halifax Humane Society trained by medium security prisoners at Tomoka Correctional Institution's work camp, in Daytona Beach. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Tim Shortt)
Inmate William Surface, one of the two lead trainers, holds the one graduate that wasn't going home yet, since "Sammy" is too young, during the graduation ceremony for "Prison Pups N Pals", an animal shelter and inmate career training project, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. Ten dogs from the Halifax Humane Society trained by medium security prisoners at Tomoka Correctional Institution's work camp, in Daytona Beach. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Tim Shortt) 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Suzuki stared up at Tom Reynolds as if waiting for a command.

Reynolds, of Cape Canaveral, draws the dog close and tells how grateful he is to have the animal.

"He's done phenomenal since I brought him home," he said.

Reynolds received Suzuki, a Labrador, shepherd and pit bull mix dog, through a partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Tomoka Correctional Institution Work Camp in Volusia County.

"He is going to be a good ambassador for the program," said Reynolds, 66, a disabled Vietnam veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prison Pups N Pals, which started about three years ago, is an effort involving the prison, West Volusia Kennel Club and Halifax Humane Society to train shelter dogs, making them more adoptable.

The dogs are paired with a prisoner, who lives with and trains the dog for seven weeks. About two of every 10 dogs go to the VA's Paws of Freedom and receive an additional seven weeks of training. Some of those dogs are trained to open doors, turn off lights and bring the phone to its owner, depending on the needs of the veteran.

Reynolds, a Navy Seabee who did three tours in the Vietnam War and suffered gunshot wounds, said he believes the dog will be a great help and companion to him.

"I have a very severe case of PTSD," he said. "I didn't know I had issues until I turned 50."

Reynolds worked with the dog and trainer several times before he took the animal home last week. He said the dog can sense certain mood or physical changes and may be able to help him.

"I lock up on my right side and I'll fall," he said.

Officials said that prisoners selected for the program could eventually be released from the medium security work camp with skills that will allow them to work with animals once they are released.

"To know that I was a part of training a dog that is going to help this person, it does a lot for me," said Michael Coats, who trained Suzuki. "Being in prison is bad enough."

Coats, 38, of Tampa, who is serving the final 16 months of an eight-year sentence for burglary and grand theft, said the program has given him stability while in prison and may lead to a career on the outside. He was in another prison program that trained search dogs.

"When I leave, I'll have four years in dog training," Coats said. "I think I'm going to take that and use it for my own benefit."

Angela Gordon, assistant warden, said the partnership has drawn inquiries from other prisons that want to do the same. It helps veterans and allows more animals to be adopted rather than being euthanized. In addition, it serves the prisoners well.

"It teaches them responsibility," she said. "It gives them something to focus on other than being in prison. It gives them something to care for. It's their responsibility, 24 hours a day."

Corrections officer Gail Irwin, who supervises the program for the prison, said she never gets tired of interacting with the animals and seeing them getting adopted.

"That's what keeps me going," she said. "What could be better?"

Jennifer Muni-Sathoff, a VA social worker, said the dogs are usually strays that have suffered on the streets. They need the care of the veterans who adopt them as much as the veterans need the dog.

"These dogs have been through trauma," she said. "The dogs need the vets. We try to pair the dogs' personality with the veterans."

Reynolds said that he already had a good bond with Suzuki before he took her home to Cape Canaveral.

"It will be a good relationship," Reynolds said. "It will be a great asset in my life."

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