Lori Stevens has an ambitious goal: to match service dogs with female felons in need of redemption, as well as with American heroes.
Stevens, a Rockwall dog trainer, runs Patriot Paws, a nonprofit that finds good dogs and places them with female prison inmates for socialization and basic training. The dogs are then paired with returning military vets with wounds of body and soul.
The dogs go to service members like Brian Field, a disabled soldier who relies on prosthetic legs to walk. Recently, Field had a 10-day get-acquainted session with Tex, an 18-month-old black Lab who will be his constant companion.
"Until I actually met the pup, I didn't realize exactly how much it can do," Field said.
Stevens relies on donations to run her service and recently landed a matching grant that gives her $2 for every dollar she raises. But that runs out in September. Petco furnishes food for the puppies training in prisons, but there is never enough funding, Stevens said.
"The hardest part is asking for money," she said.
Field, 35, was 17 years into his Army career in June 2007 when he stepped on a booby trap in an Iraqi courtyard, losing both legs. While he was undergoing therapy, he learned about Patriot Paws.
Tex can open doors, retrieve dropped items and position Field's wheelchair where he can get into it from a bed or a chair. With Tex, crowds know to give Field the space he needs to help maintain his balance when walking.
"It's going to be really good," said Field, who received Tex from the nonprofit earlier this month for no cost. "I can feel it."
Patriot Paws is at an awkward stage of development, Stevens says - it's too small to hire paid staff, but it's too big to rely only on volunteers.
Once, a fan from Kentucky who saw Stevens on TV rode his motorcycle to the prison in Gatesville and presented her with $3,000 in donations he had drummed up along the way.
But that's not how it usually goes. Too often, people who hear about Patriot Paws call offering their dogs, but the agency is not a rescue operation. And most dogs won't do for service work.
"If you start with 100 dogs, you'll be lucky if 25 make it," Stevens said.
Stevens, who grew up in Garland, volunteered with nonprofits and joined professional associations to learn how to train dogs.
She gets carefully selected dogs from her contacts among breeders and shelters. She insists on pure-bred, AKC-registered dogs so she knows what she's getting. They are usually Labs because they are smart, eager to learn and friendly, she says.
Training starts when a dog is six to 18 months old, and the goal is to place the dog with its partner by the time it is 3 years old. The average working life of a service dog is eight to 10 years, although there are exceptions, like Beau.
Beau, a 14-year-old black Lab and a veteran of network television, is graying at the muzzle and semi-retired now. But he can still open doors, pick up coins dropped on the floor and all the other things that service dogs do.
"We let him train the puppies," Stevens said. "He never knows he's working. He always thinks he's playing."
In the three years since Stevens founded Patriot Paws, she has placed nine service dogs with veterans. Seven came out of her prison-based program, and another 15 are training with inmates now.
Melodye Nelson, assistant warden of the Crain Unit in Gatesville, has been part of Patriot Paws since its inception in November 2007. Female inmates write to her to ask to be in the program and must pass background checks that include disciplinary records.
Dogs in training live with the prisoners round-the-clock, and the inmates are responsible for keeping their area clean.
The inmate-trainers are serving sentences of up to 20 years for convictions that include drug possession, repeat DWIs and robbery. The prisoners bond with the dogs and treasure the notion of doing something useful with their time.
"There are a lot of tears when these dogs leave," Nelson said. "The inmates feel like they are giving back."