WILMINGTON — Bosar is doing time at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C.
The prison is for service members who have committed a crime while in the military, but Bosar, a 1-year-old black Labrador retriever, is there to train and eventually help a wounded veteran likely from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bosar is in the intermediate phase of his Canines for Veterans training. Handlers and dogs work together on such everyday tasks as opening doors, retrieving dropped objects and turning lights on and off.
Bosar will also learn to create a space between his handler and perceived threats, cuddle to help with nightmares or night terrors and perform simple tasks like loading or unloading a washing machine.
“All of the skills will help the veteran he will be partnered with to live more independent and confidently with the goal of engaging in society with tasks as simple as going out to dinner with his or her family, or going to the grocery store,” said Pat Hairston, program manager of Canines For Service, which operates Canines for Veterans.
But veterans aren’t the only ones benefitting from Bosar’s traning. The dog, rescued from the Rescue Animals Community Effort shelter in Shallotte, gets a second chance at life. His handlers, all prisoners, learn job skills and get a chance to help a fellow service member. The prisoners complete a 3,600-hour service dog-training course and are certified by the U.S. Department of Labor.
“The prisoner in some cases has never completed anything (before). They haven’t been able to complete their military service,” said Rick Hairston, Canines For Service president and CEO, and Pat’s husband. “They’re looking for somebody who wants to give them a chance and this program does it.”
The Canines for Veterans program was established in 2008 by the Hairstons, of Wilmington, 12 years after Rick started Canines for Service. Originally operated at Camp Lejeune, Canines for Veterans moved to Charleston in 2010 because of base realignment.
The program is an important part of a national effort to help veterans transition after more than a decade of war. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, about 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
While sitting on the floor of a cellblock dedicated for the Canines for Veterans program, Bosar’s handler starts the day’s training. He gives the “cuddle” command, and Bosar runs, tail wagging, into the lap of his handler.
“Good cuddle Bosar, good cuddle,” Bosar’s handler said.
To abide by U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig regulations, prisoners names could not be used for this story.
“It’s good for me because it helps my time here go by fast and it gives me the feeling of helping someone,” Bosar’s handler said. “Helping out a veteran, I guess it’s the only thing I could actually do to help them out. They put their lives on the line for us and the only way I can thank them is by training this dog.”
The name Bosar, meaning lamp or light, was selected by his handler at the brig from a list of approved names that have a biblical meaning. Pat Hairston said allowing the prisoner to choose the name gives the handler a sense of ownership in the process.
Typically a dog will stay with the same handler during the nine-12 months it takes to complete its training.
Handlers and dogs live together. Bosar and his handler begin their day at 5:30 a.m. working on some of the more than 90 commands Bosar has to learn.
“Everything we do is positive reinforcement. There can be no negative reinforcement in the program,” Rick Hairston said.
What seems as a game of tug of war with a worn and tattered piece of rope between Bosar and his handler is actually helping him to learn a valuable skill. It translates in the ability to open doors like a refrigerator with a rope attached to it.
The veterans who receive service dogs like Bosar do so at no cost. They must first submit an application and a video that is used to determine if they can benefit from a service dog. If approved, the veteran is placed on a waiting list.
Since the program’s beginning in 2008, thirty service dogs have been placed with a veteran. In 2013, out of the 18 applications submitted for a service dog, four were approved and placed with a veteran.
“As we progress with the training of the dogs, we assess what the dog does well and who the dog might be the best match for,” Pat said.
If the dog will be used to assist with balance, for example, the height and weight of the recipient is taken in to account to ensure the dog is matched to the person’s size.
Once a veteran and a dog have been paired together team training begins. The veteran spends a week in Charleston learning commands and practicing with the dog.
“Team training is where we start teaching the veteran how to utilize the service dog,” Rick said. “From working inside the walls of the brig to going out in public to restaurants, it’s a very intense week of training to make sure the veteran is going to have everything they need to be successful.”
The Hairstons seek out adoptable dogs from pet rescues through Southeastern North Carolina, including Adopt an Angel and R.A.C.E. Canines for Service is the only Assistance Dogs International-accredited organization in North Carolina and one of fewer than 60 in the United States.
“We begin looking for a dog when we have a need, either because a new prisoner is coming in or because a dog has been placed,” Pat said.
To be considered, dogs must weigh a minimum of 50 pounds and be at least 23 inches tall at the shoulders. Any signs of aggression will disqualify a dog. One of the biggest factors in deciding on whether to accept a dog into the program is money.
The federal government provides no financial assistance to Canines for Veterans. Leashes, bowls, food, collar, travel to and from Charleston, and instructional time with the prisoners all adds up. Before Rick Hairston agrees to accept a dog, he has to answer one question: Is he willing to invest $25,000 in it?
“All that is provided is the prisoners and the housing for the inmates,” he said. “Everything else we have to provide. We operate off of corporate sponsorships, grants - pretty much anything you can beg, borrow and steal from in order to get funding to make the programs work. If there is any hesitation on that, we have to pass on the dog.”
Fundraising plays a big role in providing service dogs to veterans and civilians. One such fundraiser is the eighth annual 2014 Walk & Dog Dash on March 29 at Hugh MacRae Park in Wilmington. Last year, the event came in under organizers’ goal of $60,000, raising $40,000.
The investment in Bosar should pay off by the end of the year, when he will leave the Brig to help a veteran in need.