Inmates in Camden County train service pets for veterans
CAMDEN — The Camden County Department of Corrections is tying three diverse groups together in a new effort to mutually improve the lives of all three: county jail inmates, military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and shelter dogs.
Freeholder Jonathan Young, liaison to the county DOC, calls the program Friends for Vets, done in partnership with groups like the Animal Welfare Association, the Camden County Animal Shelter, and the Voorhees Animal Orphanage.
It's a simple setup: The dogs are brought into the jail, where the inmates learn to begin to train them as service pets in a 12-week process. Then, once a satisfactory number of training hours are completed, the dogs are given to the veterans as comfort animals.
In many cases, Young said, Philadelphia-based Team Foster provides additional training to the veterans themselves, free of charge, in hopes the vets can avoid the tens of thousands of dollars it can take to identify and train a service dog from scratch.
The end result, ideally, is that everybody wins.
"The animal shelter's getting their dogs cleared out, the dogs are finding a forever home, (and) we're finding that the inmates are receiving unconditional love," Young said.
That unconditional love can be a problem. It can be something that inmates found lacking earlier in life, possibly leading them to commit crimes, and so taking on dog training — which teaches major responsibility as well as a marketable skill — can serve as a "re-entry-type program," according to Young. Because no matter what kind of day you are having, he said, a dog gives you the same kind of love.
"That dog is just the key to it," Young said of the inherent link in this program between the inmates and veterans. "It just brings those two worlds together, even though they might never see each other again, but it brings those two worlds together for that moment that affects the rest of their lives."
Camden County is keeping tabs on the former inmates who have participated in Friends for Vets. Young said so far there have been no instances of recidivism. He hopes the experience will help these people, many of them low-level offenders, stay on their treatment plans — and perhaps convince them to get pets of their own.