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Suffolk jail program offers second chance for veterans, service dog

Rocky, a rescued black Labrador, is the heart of a pilot program that will allow an inmate to train a service dog for a fellow veteran, one who suffers from PTSD.

A black Labrador named Rocky started his training at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank on Monday. Rocky will train with an inmate during the course of the next eight weeks and then become a service-companion dog for a veteran who is currently undergoing treatment for PTSD at the VA hospital in Northport. (Credit: James Carbone)

Two veterans scored big Monday at the launch of a new initiative that pairs veterans with service dogs, but it was Rocky, the pooch, who stole the show at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank.

Rocky is the heart of a pilot program between the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office and Paws of War that will allow an incarcerated veteran to train a service dog for a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The 35-pound black Labrador, who was at the Southampton Animal Shelter only days ago, took to his new trainer with plenty of affectionate licks on the face and tail wags.

“Evidence-based literature says that animals inside of a housing area where there are incarcerated individuals reduce the stress,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. “It also allows the inmate to share some expression of care for an animal.”

In a recent study, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine released findings that show symptoms of PTSD decrease among veterans with service dogs.

Jermaine, 43, an Army veteran and an inmate, will train the 2-year-old Lab for one to two hours, twice a week, for eight weeks at the correctional facility. After the eight-week session Jermaine, who has been serving seven months at the facility on petty larceny charges, will receive a certificate.

A fellow veteran, Harold Stolberg, 41, of Lindenhurst, will receive Rocky.

Everybody wins.

“It means camaraderie, and it's helping me feel better by helping a fellow vet,” said Jermaine, who requested that his full name not be used.  “I’m glad I got the opportunity to do this, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Rocky will be the fourth black Labrador for Stolberg, a single father who was diagnosed with PTSD 20 years after serving in the Marines. He said he had three Labradors beginning from childhood, but none were trained for PTSD patients.

“I watched my friend’s Belgian Malinois for two months, and I noticed the dog calmed me down, and it made me smile,” Stolberg said. “I’m really looking forward to my 40s being fantastic.”

In addition, Jermaine has been offered a training job with Paws of War. While he comes with some dog training experience — he owned three pit bull terriers — the organization's co-founder Robert Misseri, 49, of Nesconset, said the veteran will learn valuable training techniques most dog owners never encounter.

“But he’s also going to learn something spiritually," Misseri said. "People are counting on him; he’s counting on us. The dog is counting on everyone, and a veteran in eight weeks is counting on the big picture of getting a service animal.”

Paws of War, a 4-year-old nonprofit, pairs service dogs with veterans and first responders who suffer from PTSD or trauma-related incidents. Misseri has trained and placed more than 90 dogs with U.S. military veterans who suffer from emotional effects of war.

Misseri said the group seeks specific characteristics in dogs it is looking to match with a veteran. Rocky had to fit an energetic and an engaging profile.

Pending the success of the pilot, Suffolk County officials said they would consider extending the program.

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