Last winter, Army Pfc. Landon Garrett was injured snowboarding, leaving him with two fused vertebrae and a temporarily paralyzed right side. Garrett now has a new friend to help him recover. On Tuesday, he received a service dog, Sha Ren, a Shar-Pei mix trained by inmates at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. The training is part of a program that turns behaviorally challenged dogs from Mat-Su Animal Shelter into lovable pets, or in a few special cases, service dogs.
And while the recipients of the service dogs may be getting help from the dogs, the inmates who train the dogs are also beneficiaries.
Inmate Dana Hilbish, 50, was Sha Ren's main trainer. She said being a trainer in the program taught her compassion and how to let go.
"She wasn't ever mine, but she'll always be here," Hilbish said, holding her hand to her heart.
Sha Ren was only 6 weeks old when she was found in the Mat-Su during a cold snap in 2006 and was only 8 weeks old when Hilbish began training her. Hilbish trained Sha Ren to retrieve objects and bring them to her owner at a raised height, open doors and carry items for her owner.
The service dog training program is an offset of SPOT, a program through Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. The program, which started in 2006, has graduated over 200 dogs.
When Cheri Hagen, instructor for SPOT training program, saw programs in other prisons working to train service dogs, she said she thought, "why can't we?"
To find potential service dogs, trainers look for exceptional qualities and intelligence in Mat-Su Animal Shelter dogs that come through SPOT. When they see a candidate for the service-dog program, they begin training, which can take up to two years. Often the dogs aren't able to perform tasks down the line and are given back to the animal shelter for adoption, like the other dogs in SPOT. So far, only three service dogs have graduated from the program. The third is Sha Ren.
Pfc. Garrett said the dog-training program has worked wonders for him. He hopes to make a full recovery and begin training with the Army again within a year. If his hopes are realized, he said, he would give Sha Ren to another injured soldier who needs her just as much as he does today.
Find Kaylin Bettinger online at adn.com/contact/kbettinger or call her at 257-4349.