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TOWNSEND -- Can the comfort of a single dog bring wider appeal to more than just its owner? It's paws-ible. Evelyn is a yellow Lab puppy who lives part-time and temporarily at MCI Shirley's medium security facility, bringing companionship to her incarcerated handler as well as joy to a local family before beginning work as a guide.
Evelyn's journey began nine months ago at the America's VetDogs/Guide Dog Foundation's breeding and training facility in Smithtown, New York. After eight weeks of play and inter-species introductions, it was time for Evelyn to get to work. She reported for duty at the Shirley jail seven months ago, where she is the roommate and trainee of a prisoner.
Evelyn spends her weekends as part of the Minckler family. Together with the inmates, the Mincklers train Evelyn to one day provide comfort or guidance to America's wounded warriors. She is one of seven dogs currently residing at the prison as part of the VetDogs program, a non-profit organization that provides military veterans with service animals. She will remain in this in this arrangement for another six months or more.
At her weekend residence, Evelyn unwinds from a ruff week of rolling over and sitting up, by running the acreage with the Minckler's other two dogs.
Sky Minckler, Natalie's mother, capitulated to Natalie's desire to participate. Sky explained that the vetting process was extremely thorough, including an inspection of the Mincklers' farmhouse, and that the organization still makes regular visits. "They are very supportive," she said. "They gave us everything we needed to get started. We only buy the food and attend a monthly training group."
The inmates who are chosen to house and train the dogs are carefully vetted and themselves trained by professionals at VetDogs. They naturally grow attached to the animals after more than a year of co-habitation, so one would think that the final separation, when trianing is over, would be an anxious moment. "It is," said Allison Storck, spokesperson for VetDogs. "But they knew in advance that the day would come when the dog would have to leave." There is a sense of pride that they did their part to help out a veteran, someone they would likely never meet.
Storck said that inmates who are themselves veterans get priority when deciding on who to choose. "We train and place about 400 dogs per year, the majority pass through the prison pup program," she sad, adding that so far there are 14 participating correctional facilities along the eastern seaboard. Evelyn does not care about statistics. "She is food-motivated," said Storck about the dog, and her breed.
After the team training--inmate and family--that lasts about 14 months, the dogs are shipped back to Smithtown, where they get further, more specific training. Wounded warriors in want of the animals are flown to facility also. They spend about two weeks getting to know their dog and getting intensive lessons on how to care for and utilize the dogs, mostly Labs and retrievers. The veterans are accommodated in a dormitory while at the multi-acre facility.
Dogs have four legs so Evelyn's journey fittingly does also. The fourth, and final, stop will be the home of her veteran handler. And for Natalie, the final departure will be bittersweet but she is prepared for it. "It is kind of a good thing that we only have Evelyn on weekends," she said. "It is goodbye practice."