By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
GATESVILLE - Seconds after Amanda Moon dropped her keys they were back in her hand again, courtesy of Soldier, a 9-month-old Labrador retriever.
Behind Moon, a black lab-border collie mix was picking up laundry off the floor with her teeth, putting it into a basket on the ground for Patricia Zuehl.
"Good girl, Duchess," Zuehl said, before "marking" the behavior with a clicking device, handing the dog a treat and prompting her to pick up more.
Along with Moon and Zuehl, about a dozen other women in white uniforms were training dogs to complete tasks ranging from dragging wheelchairs to retrieving prosthetic legs from across the room. The cooing, clicking, kibble-driven scene was part of a recent demonstration by dog trainers incarcerated at the Murray Lane Unit at the Texas Department of Correctional Justice.
Since 2008, Rockwall-based Patriot Paws has partnered with the prison to train service dogs for disabled veterans. The four-legged assistants learn 50 standard commands, but a specific dog's training is tailored to its veteran's needs.
More than 40 service dogs have been matched with veterans who have disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to seizure disorders. A trained dog is valued at $20,000, but offered free to veterans.
Dogs live and train with the female inmates for 18 months, switching primary caretakers every four-to-eight weeks. They also make regular visits to local foster families to avoid institutionalization.
Moon, 32, has been with Patriot Paws for two years.
"I was leading a drug-addicted life, and I was looking for an easy way to get what I needed," said Moon, originally from Waskom and 10 years into a 15-year sentence for aggravated assault. "I tried to rob a man and almost cost him his life."
Moon said she's lucky the victim didn't die, and she's grateful to work with the dogs. "I thank God every day for Patriot Paws," she said, adding that she hopes to become a dog trainer when she leaves prison. "I've made this work for me."
Lori Stevens, owner and founder of Patriot Paws, said several former incarcerated trainers are now employed in animal services on the outside, including two she hired.
"If I could hire more, I would, because I know how they've been trained," said Stevens, a longtime dog trainer who established Patriot Paws in 2006 to serve veterans.
With a father who served in the Air Force and a son still serving, Stevens said Patriot Paws is her life's work. "I love dogs, and I love veterans," she said. "I grew up in Texas and just believe that freedom isn't free."
Taking the training concept inside prison walls is not only practical (they're available to work with dogs 24 hours a day), said Stevens but another way for her to give back.
Rhonda Lee, a dog trainer with Patriot Paws, said the organization changed her life.
On parole after serving a seven-year sentence for a drug-related offense, she asked Stevens to volunteer at the nonprofit's headquarters. The gig turned into a full-time job teaching inmates to train dogs.
"When I got out, I was way overwhelmed," said Lee, 46. "But I was very blessed. … It's still kind of shocking, because this doesn't happen to a lot of people."
Lee said being in prison and part of Patriot Paws taught her to live less selfishly. She's opened her home to another parolee hired by Stevens.
"You see their face when they get out, and you're like, 'Oh I know how you feel,'" she said. "But even though you're scared, you put one foot in front of the other and keep moving."
Inmates at two units within the Gatesville complex are involved in the program, including 15 at Murray Lane. The unit houses aggravated offenders, many of whom pose a low enough security risk to participate in Patriot Paws.
Warden Judy Scott said current participants' offenses range from drug crimes and robbery to vehicular manslaughter. Patriot Paws candidates must maintain good behavior and complete a written application to be interviewed for the program.
"A lot of them don't have high self-esteem, and that's what brought them here," said Scott about the inmates. "But with Patriot Paws, it's like growing a garden, and they get to see that progress."
Statistically, rehabilitation programs work, said Scott. Until recently, the recidivism rate for Patriot Paws participants was zero. So far, one offender has returned to prison among dozens of program graduates.
"Locking them up and throwing away the key isn't the answer," said Scott, adding that Patriot Paws is hard work. "A lot of people think it will be fun, but it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Moon agreed about the demands of service-dog training. "When I first went into the program, I thought we were going to play all day and get licked and roll around in the mud," she said. "But it's a lot of work, a lot of mental work, a lot of physical work. It's a very demanding job."
Still, Moon said, the satisfaction in seeing dogs she's helped train get placed with veterans "outweighs it all."
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559.