MERCER, Pa. (WKBN) – After more than two years of research and coalition-building, a new training program at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Mercer was unveiled on Wednesday.
The program is designed to help prisoners in the unit get college credit for training medical service dogs while also helping veterans in the community living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of those veterans is Dustin Schneider. He has a service dog named Spangle.
“I get woken up with the best thing in the world,” Schneider said.
Spangle is from a program called Guardian Angel Medical Service Dogs, Inc. (GAMSD). The dogs are raised and trained to help veterans who struggle with different disabilities, like Schneider.
“She is an everyday reminder of we’re not alone. She’s not only my number one teammate, you know, she’s got my back and everything else. She has a bond with me that is immeasurable,” Schneider said.
SCI at Mercer is partnering with GAMSD to continue serving veterans like Schneider.
In the new program, inmates will be paired with 5-month-old puppies that will be with them 24 hours a day.
“What’s better than having something that gives you unconditional love when you’re in a prison facility?” said GAMSD trainer Joanne Werner.
The dogs will be raised with the inmates for one year and trained in people skills and becoming more socialized. Then, the dogs will go back to the GAMSD farm to be evaluated and then paired with a veteran in the community.
“It’s going to benefit not only the dogs but the inmates, everybody. In general, the veterans that are going to get paired with these dogs,” Werner said.
Schneider knows the impact this program will have on other veterans like him.
“When it’s easy to doubt yourself and it’s easy to get sucked into the nightmares and it’s easy to get sucked into the depression, she just looks at me and I go, ‘OK, I can change my comprehension,'” Schneider said.
Schneider says his bond with Spangle is unlike anything he could have ever imagined.
“It’s gotten stronger, it’s gotten more personal,” he said.
It’s a bond that SCI at Mercer is now working to give more veterans across Pennsylvania.
“It’s not just a service dog or a medical service dog, it’s actually being told to me that there’s a community out there that people love you,” Schneider said.