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Maine prison program pairs residents with puppies

National nonprofit America's VetDogs has been at the Maine State Prison since 2017. Organizers say they're in need of volunteers who live near the Warren area.

WARREN, Maine — Most Mainers will never have a reason to be at the Maine State Prison. From the outside, cement walls and barbed wire look foreboding, but there's important work being done inside that's giving those serving time there a new purpose.

National nonprofit America's VetDogs opened a program at the Maine State Prison in 2017. Its purpose is to bring in puppies that prison residents help train to eventually become service dogs for veterans and first responders around the country. The dogs could be addressing either mental health needs, like struggles with PTSD, or physical disabilities. Either way, organizers say the program is an important one.

"It’s a win-win situation," Paula Giardinella, the prison program manager for America's VetDogs, said. "The inmates win because they learn valuable skills. The dogs win because they get so much time and attention and early training. The veterans obviously win."

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Giardinella said right now, America's VetDogs has programs across six states in 14 prisons, mainly on the East Coast. She said a few years ago, the wait for people in need to get these service dogs was about three years. Now, that timeline has been cut by more than half to about one year. 

"The more prisons we can open, the more capacity to raise puppies, the faster we can get dogs out to people that need them," Giardinella said. 

The people in prison work with the dogs all day, Monday through Friday, for a little more than a year. Then they say goodbye, and the dogs go to New York for final, specialized training.

"All the work they’re doing here at the prison just helps the dogs go through final training faster," Giardinella said.

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Scott Harvey, the unit manager at the Maine State Prison, said the program is also beneficial to the prison residents.

"Just having the dogs around in general changes the attitude of people in here," Harvey said. "[It] gives them a purpose. It gives them something to do. It keeps them busy."

Harvey said he has noticed a difference since the program began. Once prison residents start participating, he said, "they're glued."

"Guys went from being in trouble all the time to outside throwing a ball, laughing, smiling. It’s been a huge attitude change and shift in some of these guys," Harvey said.

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"It’s giving me a lot of motivation. Now, I’m in college. Never did I think I was going to get into college. It has helped push me to want to do better," resident Cory Bennett said. 

Bennett has been at the Maine State Prison since 2017, and his earliest possible release date is undetermined. 

Bennett said he has been taking part in this program for nearly five years, but the dog he is working with, Brady, is the one he has bonded with the most.

"This is hands-down the dog that I’ve got the biggest, deepest connection with," Bennet said. "I kind of feel like he’s a lot like me."

Bennett said he has aspirations now to hopefully study psychology, so he can work with troubled kids — something he said he himself never had. He said Brady has given him a reason to better himself — and in return, Brady's company has also helped him. 

"It takes a lot of stress away from being in here," Bennett said.

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For other prison residents, this program presents an opportunity to give back to a community they once belonged to: the military. Nathanael Nightingale said it feels like a way for him to "complete [his] service." 

He has been at the Maine State Prison since 2011 and will be serving at least a 33-year sentence.

"If one of these dogs that I helped with saves one life, then it’s all worth it," Nightingale said.

The dog Nightingale is currently working with, Judge, is his sixth dog. He said they have about a month left together before Judge leaves for final training.

"The first [goodbye] was hard. It was very hard, but after that, you get used to it," Nightingale said. "Now, it’s one of those things where you just know that your dog is going to a better place."

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Del Hathaway has been at the Maine State Prison since 2017. His earliest possible release date is in 2026. Michael, the dog he is working with, is a bit younger than the others. For him, having that animal connection has been important.

"I remember as a kid, I had a black German shepherd named Lady, and she was my best friend," Hathaway said. "My household was pretty rough. To be able to have somebody like that in my life was amazing. Just to be able to have somebody to confide with, somebody that loved me unconditionally."

Hathaway said the dogs have reminded him how to have compassion for other beings and things, even in a "rugged environment". They have also given him a second chance, in a way. 

"Any opportunity that I get to give back, I try to take full advantage of it, no matter what it is," Hathaway said. "I think that just comes from deep inside me, knowing all the wrong that I’ve done."

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Paula Giardinella said America's VetDogs is in need of weekend volunteers who live in about a 30-mile radius of the Warren area. They essentially pick the puppies up on Friday afternoon and keep them through Sunday afternoon to help expose them to life outside of the prison. 

She said they're also in need of a "puppy advisor" who goes into the prison every week for an hour or two to help train the dogs. For more information about employment opportunities, click here

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