In one Colorado prison, convicts save dogs, veterans – and themselves

For the women on Unit 1, a dog-training program has brought a second chance. For a vet struggling with PTSD, it has opened a new life. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Trainer Carolyn Barney introduces combat veteran Nick to his service dog, Dasher, in Chelmsford, Mass. Delta Dogs is one of several programs that trains rescued dogs to help vets who suffer from PTSD navigate life after combat.

Miriam Helmick, an inmate on Unit 1 of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, recalls laying on the floor of her cell, singing to a new arrival who was too timid to come out from under the bed.

Like many of the women here, the dog she was comforting arrived at the prison skittish and scared. 

“I didn’t want to drag her out,” says Ms. Helmick, who has a quiet voice, librarian glasses, and bobbed brunette hair. She is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the murder of her husband. She knows what it’s like, she says, to be pushed and pulled around when you don’t want to be. 

Helmick sang lullabies as she lay beside the bed until the dog came out on its own. 

Rescued from animal shelters around the state, many of the dogs in Unit 1 were due to be destroyed, discarded in shelters or picked up as strays by concerned passers-by. 

Now they are being trained and cared for by the inmates here, sleeping on blankets crocheted by the women, in crates right beside their beds. 

The plan is to make the dogs into service animals for US military veterans grappling with post-traumatic stress – folks who know a little something about feeling trapped and discarded themselves.

Freedom Service Dogs of America in Englewood, Colo., is one of a number of service organizations throughout the country that help train support animals for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress and other wounds of war. The emphatically patriotic names of these organizations bear testament to their cause: Hero Dogs, K9s for Warriors, Patriot PAWS, Pets for Vets. And with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) not covering the costs of such training – the ranks of such groups striking out on their own are growing. 

•  •  •

Before Paul Sasse got his dog, Sapphire, he says he didn’t want to leave his house.

He was an Army operator with the 1st Special Forces Group in Iraq when an explosively formed projectile ripped through his vehicle in 2007, killing his sergeant major and cracking his own helmet. 

Diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, Mr. Sasse was due to be sent home with a Purple Heart, but he wouldn’t go. He begged his commander for a medical clearance and got it.

Still, he now can’t remember much of his childhood. “It’s pretty much like my life started in Iraq,” he says. 

He continued that service – three deployments total in Iraq and Afghanistan – until he was medically retired in 2014 after 13 years in the military.

Sasse is not quite sure when his post-traumatic stress began, “But one thing I can say: It kept getting worse and worse.” Back home in Washington State, he’d ask his children to grab him a step stool, but they would bring him a book instead. “I’d say, ‘Why’d you bring me the book?’ It turns out I’d confused the words for book and step stool.” 

He didn’t want to leave the house, even when his wife begged him to take her to a restaurant or to go to the store. “She kept telling me, ‘You have to get out. You have to do something.’ ”

He couldn’t do it, and his wife – the mother of his two children – divorced him.

The Army prescribed a service dog to help him with PTSD, but it doesn’t pay for service dogs. And the VA takes a decidedly skeptical tone when it comes to “emotional support dogs.” “Becoming dependent on a dog can get in the way of the recovery process for PTSD. Based on what we know from research, evidence-based treatment provides the best chance of recovery from PTSD,” its website reads.

This evidence-based treatment includes “therapies and medications for PTSD,” according to the VA website. 

Sasse and others say that their emotional support animals allow them to go out in the world when normally they would not. They argue, too, that the VA will spend far less in the long run, including on prescription drugs, if they stepped up their investment in service animals.

That makes sense, says Cheryl Krause-Parello, director of Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors and associate professor at the University of Denver College of Nursing. 

“It almost exercises the brain, because veterans have to stay on schedule with the dog, and walk the dog,” says Dr. Krause-Parello, who is in talks to raise funds for research on how working with service dogs could help injured soldiers.

•  •  •

One thing is clear to Sasse: Having Sapphire means “I still have to take medication, but not nearly as much.”

Sasse’s dog came courtesy of a woman, Martha Bowker, who lost her husband and wanted to honor him by giving money to a cause he supported.

Sasse flew to Colorado to pick up Sapphire and spent three days working with her. During that time, “They’re not training the dog – the dog is training you,” he says. 

The pets learn to turn on lights when the vets arrive home, and to “clear” the house, which involves dogs going room-to-room to alert their owners if any people are there – an unwelcome surprise for vets who live alone, for example.  

Most important, the dogs are trained to stay between their owners and other people, to give vets who might be grappling with post-traumatic stress some breathing room.

“That’s her main job – blocking people,” Sasse says. “I get really uncomfortable when people get too close to me.”

As they bonded in Colorado, Sasse and Sapphire went on outings together, to the store and to the movies – one of the few escapes from his stress – where he sat in the last row, his back to the wall, with Sapphire quiet but alert beside him.

Sasse was able to go places he had long avoided but that served as outlets for his recovery, like the gym. Freedom Service Dogs trainers tagged along to help hone Sapphire’s skills, like teaching her how to not get in the way, for example, when Sasse lifted weights.

Today, Sasse says that Sapphire can often sense his moods before he can. 

Sometimes, these moods are obvious – when he’s having nightmares, Sapphire nudges him awake. 

She is also protective. “I really don’t like people being in my space, so if people are getting close and I’m getting agitated, before I even realize I’m getting agitated she’ll lean on me and push me away from the person,” he says. “When she does that it gives me a clue that I need to take a step back, take a deep breath.”

Sapphire also gives him a reason to excuse himself when he’s starting to feel overwhelmed. ”I can tell people, ‘The dog needs to go outside.’ ”

And he’s starting to have some fun again. “If my ex-wife – now girlfriend – wants to go to the store, we’re able to go to the store,” he says. “I still can’t go to busy restaurants, but if she wants to go to a small, quiet restaurant, we can go.” 

It is all helping Sasse and vets like him begin to rebuild their family life, though admittedly with some hiccups.

“Sometimes Sapphire will put her bear paw on my chest and I’ll just sit there and look at her and feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he says, adding that he thinks his girlfriend “gets jealous sometimes.”

He would like to go back to the prison and thank the women who trained his dog. “The predicament that they’re in right now – where they feel like they’re trapped – that’s how I felt, too,” he says. 

“What they’re doing really helped me out. Sapphire helped our whole family. What they do makes a huge, huge difference. She – they – made it so I was able to leave my house,” he adds. “Without her – without them – we don’t really know where we would be.” 

•  •  •

The women in the Colorado training program have committed crimes that run the spectrum from drug possession to murders in this prison with inmates at every custody level, from minimum to maximum security.

They have worked their way up to Unit 1, where unlike being under lockdown in the maximum security Unit 7, they can wear makeup, have ice cream, watch DVDs, and do crafts.

It is also “where all the good jobs are,” including this one, says Darlene McInnes, who runs the training program.

A redhead with orange-tipped nails that are a nod to the Denver Broncos, McInnes’s small mix dog trots beside her toward her office in the prison. He is not the epitome of great behavior, she says. “You know that old saying about the cobbler’s child has no shoes?”

As she makes her way down the prison corridor, the craft privileges of the women of Unit 1 are on display in an explosion of yarn. They have crocheted dog beds, blankets for the kennels, and holders for the vinegar and water spray bottles that they use to correct the dogs.

McInnes has a knack for matching the dogs’ personalities with those of the women who will care for them, says Jenna Horton, who just made parole after an eight-year drug sentence. 

Through the program, Ms. Horton is gaining something she’s never felt before, she says: competence. She has taken the skills she’s learned – bathing, grooming, cutting nails,  – and taught them to others, including families who adopt the pets that don’t qualify as service dogs.

These families come by on Thursdays, “go home” days at the prison, when the women give up the dogs to their adopted families or service organizations.  

The same day they leave, the inmates get a new pet, which helps them surmount some of the sadness of separation. 

The women work with their trainees day and night for six to eight weeks, sleeping with them in their cells and taking them to the chow hall to make sure they learn not to beg for food, or dive for dropped table scraps.

In return, they get round-the-clock companionship in their cells.

“This place isn’t an easy place to live in,” says Denise Elliott, who’s serving time for the murder of her husband.

She looks around her cell, decorated with blankets and dog beds that she has crocheted in shamrock green and purple yarn. “It makes the time here so much better.”

•  •  •

The prisoners say the dogs also give them a second chance – to learn to care for someone. The unconditional love the women receive from the dogs is a new feeling for many of the inmates, Ms. Elliott says.

Now a master trainer, she makes an effort, she says, to spread that love, approaching “every girl walking by” in the prison courtyard to give them the chance them spend time with the dogs. 

That kind of interaction allows them all to experience “normal life,” a rare thing in prison, notes Sarah Berry, Elliott’s cell mate, who is serving 48 years for the second-degree murder.

“I can’t fix what happened in my life, but to produce something so positive out of such a dark place…” she says, her voice catching as it trails off. “Your self-esteem is trashed by the time you get here. This is more than just living with dogs.” 

It is, she says, a second chance. “If you give me that chance, I can show you who I really am.”

And that person, she says, is someone who didn’t learn how to love early in her life, but is learning something about it now. 

“They say we’re saving these dogs,” Elliott adds, “but they’re saving us.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.