LAKIN — It was a day of mixed emotions at Lakin Correctional Center: a day of hellos and goodbyes, of new friendships, sometimes heartbreaking stories, and lots and lots of dogs.
It’s called “bump” day. Inmates at the center have been working to train dozens of dogs, all destined to be in service, through a program run by the nonprofit Paws4people and Lakin counselor Philip Putney. Every bump day some of those dogs are deemed ready to join new families.
Kyria Henry founded Paws4people in 1999, when she was 12, and initially the dogs were utilized in social therapy in schools. Later, the company expanded to provide service dogs for people with a variety of therapeutic and practical needs: from veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to people who rely on wheelchairs, to children with a range of disabilities and social therapy programs. The dogs, primarily golden retrievers, are provided free of charge on a contract through which the company is able to keep track and ensure the animals are being cared for properly.
And all the dogs in the program end up with jobs and homes. Their unique abilities and temperaments are recognized and channeled by Henry and her colleagues.
“We have different jobs for the dogs to do,” Henry said. “So that eliminates the flunk-out factor you sometimes hear about with service dogs.”
Five families attended the bump this time — three adults suffering from PTSD, an intellectually gifted 11-year-old girl whose jaundice in infancy caused major damage to a motor center in her brain and relegating her to life in a wheelchair, and a seven-year-old boy who was shaken as a baby and is also almost entirely wheelchair-bound.
Miller and Henry and the rest of the team at Lakin evaluated each family and its chemistry with the dogs before assigning the dogs with new homes and new jobs.
Sarah, who was accompanied at the bump by her husband, spent time in Afghanistan working for the U.S. government first as an Arabic language expert, and then as an improvised explosive device specialist.
“I thought it would be more interesting to work on bombs,” Sarah said, decribing her experiences working with Navy Seals to hunt top Taliban officials, and witnessing a busload of her colleagues and friends explode as the bus left their facility. Later while she was taking a vacation day, her best friend was blown up by a suicide bomber alongside a road. “I wasn’t there; I wasn’t able to stop them from killing him.”
All this has led to periods of intense anxiety and frequent nightmares.
“Some days, I can’t leave the house,” Sarah said. “To know that there’s something that can take me out of the darkness, and get back to my job—I’m just very thankful for that.”
Josh Mulder and Roger Dudley, both former Marines, both experience similar symptoms. All three were visibly calmed by interacting with the dogs.
“This is six years to the day that I left the Marines,” said Mulder, who also suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury while deployed, and is now a student at WVU. “And today I get to meet my dog.”
Susan and Ken Haas, parents of 11-year-old Lexi, said that their daughter has expressed a strong desire to have a dog of her own. Susan explained that Lexi hopes her dog will provide friendship for her and also act as a bridge between her and other children.
“She sees that other children are afraid to talk to her; they cross the street when they see her coming,” said Susan.
Alana Worrel, who is the adoptive mother of seven-year-old Rich Worrel, said she could relate to this. She also hopes that a dog will be of practical use as well as a companion to her son. Rich, she said, has a hard time holding on to things and the dogs are trained to retrieve objects on command.
Women at Lakin who are involved with the dogs go through about a year’s worth of hands-on training, during which time they progress through certain positions, eventually earning the right to be a dog’s primary handler.
Inmate Suzana, who has been promoted to lead trainer and senior support specialist, has been incarcerated for 14 years. She has been sentenced to life imprisonment — she faces a parole board next year — and said she has been involved in the program since its beginnings at Lakin.
Cece Miller, advocate for alumni (inmates who have trained to become dog trainers), said that the program has been invaluable for the women.
“This is what gets them through their time here,” Miller said. She added that she sees a tremendous change in many of the inmates after they become involved with the dogs. Miller added that she has a particular personal interest in the outcomes for inmates. Like many of the Paws4people team, she used to be one herself. While in prison she graduated with a masters degree in counseling.
“It’s hard to let [the dogs] go. You get attached. But this means the world to me,” Suzana said. “Instead of spending my time being angry with people who hurt me, it’s a way of helping people. And helping myself.”