At a federal prison in Morgantown, Jeff Marrero is working with his service dog Biley on how to close doors. The golden retriever walks over to the door, tugs the thick rope wrapped around the door knob and pulls it closed.
Marrero, a United States military veteran, is serving a nine year sentence for a non-violent drug charge. For the past two and a half years, he has worked as a part of the Veterans to Veterans Dog Program - an outreach initiative of the Morgantown-based service dog training program Hearts of Gold and West Virginia University. Dogs in the program are trained by inmates, then issued free of charge to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or mobility issues, veterans like Rachel Gregory.
Gregory did not serve overseas, but suffers from PTSD due to a military-related sexual assault she was the victim of here at home. Missy helps her cope with the trauma, following her to work at Best Buy.
“We’re working on a cover me command right now,” she said. “Where eventually once I find someone to pair up with me and train she’ll notify me from a certain amount of distance behind me that someone is coming up behind me and I don’t freak out.”
Missy is also trained to lick her hand or lean against her legs when the dog senses Gregory getting stressed or anxious. Gregory says Missy’s presence and support helps prevent the panic attacks she used to experience and allows her to maintain a normal, healthy work schedule and social life.
When a trigger occurs, “I just focus in on her and I know that I’m ok,” she said.
Marrero was one of the inmates who helped train Gregory’s dog Missy. Back at the prison, Marrero is putting Biley, who happens to be the littermate of Missy – through her training paces.
Marrero explains that the name – Biley - comes from the word bilingual. Marrero is teaching her commands in both Spanish and English so that if needed, she could go to a veteran for whom English is a second language.
At FCI Morgantown, there are now 19 veteran-inmates in the program. 10 dogs have completed training at the prison and been placed with veterans in the community. 12 more are currently in training, although a Hearts of Gold spokeswoman said not all of those will successfully achieve the rigorous designation of service dog. Some will instead become emotional support dogs, therapy dogs or pets.
While the program benefits are clear for veterans who receive dogs on the outside, veteran inmate Michael Graboske says he’s benefited from the program too. Training dogs has helped Graboske deal with the stress and anxiety of incarceration.
“The first time I took a dog out, I took it out back to the playpen and I threw a ball and all kind of emotions were released,” said Graboske. “And from there on learning to work with the dogs and their behaviors - teaching them it’s a beautiful thing after being in jail a long time and having the opportunity again - it opened me up to feel again. I was a complete shell and it brought me out.”
“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “I like the concept of veterans for veterans because when we were in our forces we had each other backs. Because we are incarcerated now, this is a way for us to maintain that promise we made in the service.”
Veterans to Veterans is not just providing inmates with emotional rehabilitation, but also is teaching them a marketable skill they can use upon their release. All inmate-veterans participating in the program will have the opportunity to become certified service dog trainers and both Graboske and Morrero say they plan to continue their work once released.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.