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Eastern Correctional Institution inmate and dog trainer Jay Laury demonstrates a carry task with Cubby, a puppy in the America's Vet Dogs program. Inmates completed a year-long training with the future service dogs then said farewell to their first pair of canine graduates. The dogs will receive final training at the America's Vet Dogs headquarters in New York before being placed with a wounded American veteran.(Photo: Staff photo by Laura Emmons)Buy Photo

Story Highlights

  • Two puppies trained by inm ates in the ECI service dog training program graduated on Wednesday.
  • The puppies are a part of the America's VetDogs Veteran's K-9 Corps that trains Labrador retrievers to be service companions to disabled veterans
  • The Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover is among four state prisons in Maryland involved in the vet canine training program.
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Cubby and Sunrise showed off their stuff, then pranced proudly to the podium to mark the end to their training in the ECI VetDogs program that certifies them, almost, as bona fide service dogs.

Teary-eyed Eastern Correctional Institution inmates looked on, as would any other proud parent who raised, trained and sent their young child into the world. The inmates had trained the eight-week-old puppies for several months, inviting them into their cells, feeding and caring for them, and teaching them life skills just like a parent would with a child.

"They both made me know how it feels to be human," inmate Jeremy Lepone told the audience, his voice cracking. He was referring to Cubby and another program puppy he helped train, Argus.

"Cubby loves to be loved," said Lepone, a Cecil County resident serving a 25-year sentence. "Argus loves food. I'll stop there because I don't want to get teary-eyed."

Several inmates and the dogs in the program demonstrated acquired skills and commands for the audience such as fetch, sit and jump.

Kellyn Layton, Prison Puppy Advisor for the America's

Kellyn Layton, Prison Puppy Advisor for the America's Vet Dogs program at Eastern Correctional Institution, puts a new "Service Dog" vest on puppy Cubby as his dog trainers, from left, inmates Damien Campbell and Jay Laury, look on with pride at the dog's graduation for the program. Not pictured is fellow trainer Jeremy Lapone. Inmates completed a year-long training with the future service dogs then said farewell to their first pair of canine graduates. The dogs will receive final training at the America's Vet Dogs headquarters in New York before being placed with a wounded American veteran.(Photo: Staff photo by Laura Emmons)

Cubby and Sunrise are the first ECI program graduates since six dogs arrived several months ago at the medium-security prison in Westover. ECI, along with the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, are the first state prisons in Maryland to participate in the service-dog training program, America's VetDogs Veteran's K-9 Corps based in New York.

The program works to train dogs to assist and be a companion to people with disabilities outside visual impairment. The organization matches dogs with suitable owners, and through a partnership with the Maryland prison system, has been able to steer more trained canines toward disabled veterans.

"People were dying before they got their dogs," said Sheila O'Brien, a spokeswoman for America's VetDogs.

She attended the ceremony and encouraged inmates to not despair about losing a dog they trained, but rather, to celebrate the good deed and service they provided. The dogs will never forget them, she said.

"Dogs don't care if you live in a prison cell or a mansion — you could meet the dogs 10 years from now, and they will remember you," O'Brien said. "You are giving a veteran back a new life."

A service dog in training at Eastern Correctional Institution

A service dog in training at Eastern Correctional Institution during graduation for two of the dogs in the America's Vet Dogs program. Inmates completed a year-long training with the future service dogs then said farewell to their first pair of canine graduates. The dogs will receive final training at the America's Vet Dogs headquarters in New York before being placed with a wounded American veteran.(Photo: Staff photo by Laura Emmons)

Several volunteers who served as weekend puppy raisers also attended the ceremony along with state and local prison officials and a dozen or more inmates who either trained the dogs or assisted.

ECI warden Kathleen Green told the audience that the experience filled a void for inmates who might have missed out on opportunities to raise, train and nurture their young children.

"The brunt of the work was with puppies between six-and-eight weeks old," she said. Inmates who are absent parents benefited by participation "since they might have missed out on being daddy, changing diapers.

"When they get out, they will be more patient parents," she also said.

Green issued a plea to families around the region to volunteer as weekend puppy raisers. Service dogs trained in a prison setting need socialization development on the outside in households similar to their permanent adopted homes. Local families signed on to keep the dogs on weekends fill that void in service training the dogs need, she said.

"We are looking for more puppy weekend raisers," she said. "We can get additional puppies if we can get puppy weekend raisers."

Eastern Correctional Institution inmate and dog trainers

Eastern Correctional Institution inmate and dog trainers Owen Rittenhouse, Jesse Barnes, and Lawrence Nichols pose with puppy Sunrise at the dog's graduation for the America's Vet Dogs program. Inmates completed a year-long training with the future service dogs then said farewell to their first pair of canine graduates. The dogs will receive final training at the America's Vet Dogs headquarters in New York before being placed with a wounded American veteran.(Photo: Staff photo by Laura Emmons)

Gary Miller, a Vietnam veteran from Cumberland serving a life sentence, agreed.

He spoke to the audience, borrowing the Marine Corps slogan to label the dogs, "the few, the proud, the puppies."

"It benefited each of us here," said Miller, whose is training a puppy named Georgie. "Many in here are hardened criminals, and to train the dogs to help others as well as veterans gives me a chance to give back to veterans and the country again."

Since ECI joined the program more than a year ago, a fourth program at a women's state prison in Hagerstown has geared up "and is doing well," Vernarelli said.

"This not just a feel-good program," he told the audience. "It's not just playing around with dogs; rather, there are 50,000 plus veterans that need these dogs."

Inmates thanked ECI Warden Kathleen Green for believing in them to do the job.

"The dogs had a calming effect on the environment," Green said she observed.

"It's hard to see them graduate," the warden added. "But I know they will assist a needy veteran. There is a dire need, and a small bit of what we do here shows respect to our service men and women."

dgates@dmg.gannett.comOn Twitter @DTDeborahGates

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