SJ prison program connects shelter dogs and military vets

Under a new Camden County initiative, eight dogs plucked from local shelters have been trained by prison inmates as service dogs and are now enjoying new lives as pets in the homes of disabled military veterans – providing benefits to all.

“The opportunity to have inmates participating and learning a new skillset that will ultimately benefit veterans is a home run for public policy, and it is critical that we continue to find more innovative ways to support both communities,” said Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young, who serves as liaison to the Department of Corrections. He added, “this progressive idea will also assist us in finding forever homes for animals from our shelter population.”

Curtis Thompson, a U.S. marine and Iraq War veteran who served four tours of duty, said being paired with a service dog is going to have a great impact on his life. “It’s going to give me hope and I’m going to be able to do more things in society because of this dog and for that I’m very grateful to the Freeholders, inmates and the jail,” Thompson said.

Service dog programs have been shown to help veterans who suffer from physical disabilities, PTSD, anxiety and depression. According to a yearlong study from the 2014 Pairing Assistance-Dogs with Soldiers (PAWS) Research Project, veterans paired with dogs reported lower symptoms of PTSD and depression-related functioning, better interpersonal relationships, less substance abuse, and better overall mental health.

Inmate-specific training programs designed to help veterans have been shown to improve the overall health of inmates involved in the programs. According to 2012 literature review prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Correction, inmates participating in the programs improved morale, lowered blood pressure, reduced anxiety and increased positive social interactions.

An inmate walks military veteran Curtis Thompson’s service dog.

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