Veteran David Crenshaw and his service dog Doc at a Capitol Hill news conference to promote House bill, H.R. 1022, the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act, March 3, 2021.

Veteran David Crenshaw and his service dog Doc at a Capitol Hill news conference to promote House bill, H.R. 1022, the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act, March 3, 2021. (Stars and Stripes)

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Three Niagara County Jail inmates are spending their days — and nights — with dogs, helping train them to serve troubled military veterans.

"The whole goal is basically to rescue dogs while rescuing veterans at the same time," said Chris Kreiger, president and co-founder of WNY Heroes, a local organization with a long track record of aid to veterans.

He started the dog training program "Pawsitive for Heroes" in 2013, but not until Aug. 5, three years after he first came up with the idea, were dogs brought to the jail.

After a 10-month training program, the dogs, which are 1 to 3 years old, are to be given to veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

Eleven such veterans are on a waiting list after referrals from the VA Medical Center, Kreiger said.

Kreiger's original idea was to use veterans who are now incarcerated as the trainers.

But as it worked out, only one of the three prisoners in the first group has been in the military.

"It's kind of an honor to be helping fellow vets, women and men who come home," said Lionel Carter, 65, of Wellsville, who was in the Army from 1973 to 1976.

"I know how much joy this animal's brought me. If it brings them half as much, it's going to be good," said Carter, who was assigned a male pit bull mix named Mayhem.

"I was excited. It gives me a purpose. It gives me something to give back," said inmate Henry Stovall, 43, of Jamestown, who has a Belgian Malinois dog called Bandit.

"I thought this would be a good idea for myself and other people, to have something meaningful in your life, and you're not alone so much," Stovall said.

"It's a great experience," said inmate Michael Kornaker, 50, of North Tonawanda, who has a female pit bull mix named Daffany.

"I had almost the same dog at home, a black Lab-Pit, so it's filling a void and I'm actually learning new skills, how to train my dog, and it's going to serve a purpose," Kornaker said. "Giving back is one of the best things you can do, and this dog is going to end up with a veteran."

The dogs are with their inmate trainers 24 hours a day in Pod 4, where the cells measure 8 by 12 feet.

"We talked about the best place to house the dogs, and what we got from WNY Heroes was, 'Put them in a pod with other inmates as part of their training,' " Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti said.

The commotion of a jail is a useful background for a dog expected to help a veteran navigate life in the community, the sheriff said.

"It creates that bond of trust between the inmate and the dog," Kreiger said. "It will help the dog more by actually spending the 24/7 with the handler."

"A lot of times he's at the foot of the bed with me, on the bed. We've bonded pretty good like that," Carter said of Mayhem. "It's kind of a work in progress for both of us, but he's probably smarter than I am."

"The dogs are specifically for that inmate. They don't hand the dog off. The dog doesn't play with the other inmates," said Chief Daniel Greenwald, the jail administrator.

"The chief's a dog guy. He breeds his own dogs. It was an easy sell to him," Filicetti said.

But the concept of dogs in jail made some prisoners and corrections officers a little nervous.

"The inmates in that pod were screened prior to this," Greenwald said. "'Is anybody afraid of dogs? Does anybody have allergies to dogs?' Any of the other inmates who had any kind of an issue, we made sure was accommodated."

"There's been a few who mentioned concerns, but I've grown up with dogs, I have a dog at home and dogs don't bother me," said Corrections Officer Bryan Woodburn, a 14-year veteran and a union representative.

"I've had behavior issue dogs before, and these dogs seem to be very well behaved for not having been trained yet," Woodburn said. "Nobody's grieved it that I know of. There were a couple of complaints from inmates, just wondering how things were going to work. Obviously there's 55 people living in the pod with the dogs. We've gotten everything squared away as of right now."

The three inmates chosen are federal prisoners, held in Lockport under Niagara County's contract with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Greenwald said federal prisoners generally stay long enough to complete a 10-month dog training program, while locally charged inmates do not. Clean inmate disciplinary records also were required.

Carter expects to be released in less than four months, but a backup inmate has been chosen to take charge of Mayhem. That inmate is already part of the twice-weekly training sessions with Kreiger and civilian dog trainer John Knop.

The Malinois came from a breeder, while the two pit bull mixes were selected from the SPCA of Niagara.

"They're very, very sweet. The two that we sent over are very, very social dogs," SPCA Executive Director Amy L. Lewis said. "They're not a concern of mine. They're dogs that were available for adoption on our adoption floor."

The SPCA did not charge an adoption fee, Lewis said.

WNY Heroes provides the dog food, the dishes, the leashes and other supplies. Purina donates the food and Pet Supplies Plus donated the cages, Kreiger said.

He said talks are underway to expand the dog program into two state prisons in Western New York, but he wasn't allowed to name them.

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