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The dogs were trained by inmates. Now they will keep veterans company

“It’s probably one of the best programs we’ve ever done here at the facility,” Sheriff Michael Filicetti said


By Thomas J. Prohaska
The Buffalo News

LOCKPORT, N.Y. — Four dogs who have spent most of the last eight months behind bars were released Tuesday.

The dogs will become service animals for four local military veterans chosen by WNY Heroes from among their list of applicants for canine helpers.

The animals were presented to the veterans during a graduation ceremony in the chapel of the Niagara County Jail.

The “Pawsitive for Heroes” program used the jail as its first training ground, WNY Heroes president Chris Kreiger said.

Seven inmates took part in the training, which involved having the dogs live in their prison pod 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unless they were being trained or taken on outings.

“Some of you said this gave you a sense of purpose,” Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti told the seven inmates who took part in the program. “I know it’s a little bittersweet for you.”

The inmates, all federal prisoners serving time in Niagara County under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, volunteered to train the animals. Filicetti said some of the inmates told him they might enter the dog training field after their sentences are up.

John Knoph, a professional trainer who helped the inmates work with the animals, said two of the dogs were selected by the SPCA of Niagara, while another was picked up by a Lancaster dog control officer and a fourth came from a trainer in Olean.

Capt. Jeffrey Kolbe of the county correctional staff said the participating inmates all handled each of the dogs.

“They slept in their cells. They were responsible for taking them outside to do their business. They were responsible for training them the other times when they weren’t with John and Chris. They were out in the rec yard. They were in the common areas training these dogs. They did a great job. In addition to the hour training, they had a lot of homework to do,” Kolbe said.

Kreiger said the idea of training dogs in jail first came up in 2018, but it was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues. He said when Filicetti became sheriff, “the program came to life.”

“When we talked about this a couple years ago, it was a no-brainer,” Filicetti said. “We thought about it: Where’s the negative in this? We’re helping our people that are in the facility, our incarcerated population, we’re helping dogs and we’re helping veterans at the end of the program. It’s a win-win-win for all of us. To say it’s a great success is an understatement.”

Some of the dogs were a challenge to train, Kreiger said.

That was the case with Rick, a Newfoundland dog who became the Buffalo Sabres’ mascot this season. Named after retiring play-by-play broadcaster Rick Jeanneret, the big black Newfie has been a hit with fans at KeyBank Center.

Rick, trained by inmate John Maye of Niagara Falls, was turned over to Coast Guard veteran Chris Kankiewicz of Batavia, who said Rick still is expected to appear at Sabres’ home games for the rest of this season.

“Rick is a good dog,” Maye said. “I love him. I’ve had him since October, and to see him go, it ain’t kicked in yet. Probably when I go to my room, it’ll kick in. I got my eyes watering right now.”

William Emerson of Clarence, a Coast Guard veteran, said he will use Bandit, a Belgain Malinois, “for friendship and to be there for me when I get frustrated or nervous in a crowd.”

Emerson had three previous training sessions with Bandit, who was trained by inmate Henry Stovall of Jamestown.

Four more dogs will be brought to the jail next month to begin a second training program, Knoph said.

“We’re going to continue it, because I think it’s probably one of the best programs we’ve ever done here at the facility,” Filicetti said.

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