By Colleen Flaherty
Fort Hood Herald
Staff Sgt. Juan Amaris, currently assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, lost both of his hands and suffered severe burns during a truck explosion in Iraq in 2006.
Amaris, 29, applied for a service dog a little more than a year ago, and finally got one last week from a seemingly unlikely place.
Maverick, a yellow Labrador retriever, isn't a traditional service dog. The Patriot Paws graduate spent the last year living and training with inmates at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Gatesville complex.
Patriot Paws dogs live 24 hours every day for up to 18 months with their incarcerated trainers in their cells, with the exception of regular outings to avoid institutionalization. Once the dogs are assessed as ready for service, they are paired with a disabled veteran.
The dogs make the matches, Patriot Paws owner and chief executive Lori Stevens said at a graduation ceremony at the complex's maximum security Lane Murray Unit on March 15.
"One of the keys is that we let the dogs pick the veterans two to three days after meeting with them. We watch," she said.
Three dogs graduated from Patriot Paws training during the ceremony. Two disabled veterans and one disabled civilian with a chronic illness, an exception to the program's policy, traveled to Gatesville one week prior to meet and begin training with the dogs they'll take home.
Over the course of that week, for example, Stevens said, Maverick "had the patience and curiosity to work with Juan."
Amaris said he hoped Maverick would help him regain some of his independence.
"If I drop something, I'm not going to have to rely on someone to pick it up," he said, adding that his prosthetics aren't particularly agile.
Patriot Paws dogs are trained to get help during emergencies; recognize and avert symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; pick up and retrieve items; open and close doors; pull wheelchairs; help with chores, such as laundry; and take off shoes and socks.
Maverick comes with one additional benefit, Amaris said. His children, ages 6 and 11, can't wait for a dog.
LaQuita Davis, 27, can relate, she said. She's been incarcerated at Lane Murray since she was 16 for conspiracy to commit capital murder and passed a rigid application and interview process to become a trainer just six months ago.
Being with the dogs gives her something to focus on, she said, and she's planning to work as a trainer upon her eventual parole.
"This is something I want to do," she said.
About 20 inmates are currently training puppies and dogs in Gatesville, at the Lane Murray and Crain units.
The women involved in the program have been successful because of hard work, Lane Murray head warden Melodye Nelson said.
Eleven women have been paroled since Patriot Paws began in 2006. Ten are working in dog-related fields, and the recidivism rate is zero, according to information from the organization.
The program is 100 percent publicly funded and looking for donations and volunteers.
"Freedom's not free," she said. "And we have to have people who do what they do."
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.
For more information on Patriot Paws, visit www.patriotpaws.org or call (972) 772-3282.