Unlikely group trains service dogs for veterans

Patriot Paws works with female inmates to 'make a difference'

PEARLAND, Texas - Cash can fetch and give "puppy" eyes like any other dog, but spend just one minute with Cash and retired U.S. Army Sergeant Javier Negrete, and you'll see why Cash is no ordinary dog.

"This dog has changed my life," said Negrete, who now lives in Pearland. "Since I've had Cash, my life is just a completely different story."

Negrete spent almost four years serving multiple tours in Iraq working as a scout for explosives. Somehow, he made it out without a scratch.

However, a car crash during his week visiting home left the him paralyzed, and a severe brain injury altered his speech. Negrete was in a wheelchair and suffering from serious depression.

Until he met Cash.

"I'm not the guy in the wheelchair anymore," Negrete said. "I'm the guy with the cool dog."

"Cool dog" Cash is a service dog that is specially trained to work with disabled veterans by the non-profit group Patriot Paws. Cash goes wherever Negrete goes. She can fetch the phone, get a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, or retrieve almost anything else Negrete needs.

Cash is part child, part companion, part caregiver, but more importantly to Negrete, the dog is all about love.

"I don't feel so sad anymore because I have her," Negrete said. "It's just so much easier. When I go outside, now I don't go out alone. I always have somebody. She is always there for me."

Long before Cash came home with Negrete, she needed specialized Patriot Paws training. She got that training by spending time, with those "serving" time.

Inside the Murray unit, a Texas prison for women in Gatesville, a small group of inmates trains service dogs just like Cash. It all started when Patriot Paws founder Lori Stevens needed volunteer trainers for her dogs, and a Texas prison official had an idea.

"The official saw our group and said, 'I think I can help,'" Stevens said during an interview inside the prison. "I researched prisons across the United States and said, 'Me in prison? Ugh.' But I found out this is one of the best parts about Patriot Paws."

Inmates work with the dogs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They teach the dogs how to fetch everything from phones to water bottles to prosthetic limbs. They learn how to help with the laundry and even what to do if a veteran has a seizure. The dogs live inside the prison with the inmates.

"I came here doing something bad," said Casey Callahan, an inmate from Fort Worth serving an eight-year sentence for armed robbery. "But I'm leaving here doing something good."

Callahan is the group's inmate leader. She said she was a "hot head" and a troublemaker. Then, the dogs and the mission changed her, she says.

"We're in such a negative place and we can still give back," said Callahan. "It's great being able to help somebody from inside these walls. I'm worth something now."

"When we watch them (inmates) watch the veterans, there's so many tissues," said Stevens. "We're all crying because the women realize they can do something different. They can help somebody else. They can make a difference while they're here."

It's a difference Negrete enjoys every hour of every day.

"Everyone deserves a second chance," Negrete said.

Patriot Paws is all about second chances -- a second chance for Negrete, a second chance for an inmate, and even a second chance for some of the service dogs rescued from abusive owners. The success comes from the paws of special dogs like Cash and the group's determination to make a difference for everyone involved.

Right now, Stevens says 89 veterans are waiting for a service dog from the organization. The cost to train each dog is around $27,000.

You can find out more about Patriot Paws and how you can help at patriotpaws.org.

Copyright 2013 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.