McAlester, Okla. (AP) — A military veteran and former stray dog saw their lives turn for the better through a local service dog initiative.

U.S. Army Veteran Kevin Watson struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts before he met Boots through the Paws for Patriots program. The initiative pairs military veterans and individuals who would benefit from service dogs trained by inmates at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in McAlester.

Boots entered the program suffering from mange, worms, a urinary tract infection and had just lost a litter of puppies before being brought from a pet shelter to the prison.

Watson said during a recent reunion of service dogs with their inmate trainers at JBCC that Boots and the program help him through tough times.

"PAWS for Patriots has changed my life," Watson said to the McAlester News-Capital. "Boots has helped me get through the day and through my daily life.

"Lots of times Boots can tell my mood before I even feel them myself," Watson said. "I've had times where she crawled up in my lap and didn't really know why but it helped me to recover from where I was."

Paws for Patriots has placed 10 former shelter dogs with veterans and individuals in need since its inception in July 2017. The program pairs local shelter dogs with inmates in the veterans club at JBCC to train them as service animals.

Three of those dogs — Boots, Rowdy and Goldie — were recently reunited with their trainers, who gathered in a room at the facility.

JBCC inmate Michael Hooten trained Boots after the dog was a stray for two years and was in the shelter for six months.

Hooten said he fed her antibiotics for eight weeks and brought her back to health.

"That's why she is so close to me," Hooten said.

Boots wagged her tail and tried to jump on Hooten when she entered the room before Watson allowed her to show affection. She also recognized her former classmate, Goldie.

Watson, who now works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, told those gathered that Boots rides with him in a trailer attached to his bike.

"The farthest we've been is probably 13 miles with our average in the double digits," said Watson.

He said Boots is always willing to learn and is at her happiest when the vest is on.

"She's a real good girl," he said.

Stan Stahlman, Goldie's owner, said the dog brought him back to life.

Stahlman said he previously had quadruple bypass surgery and has a spinal cord stimulator in his back.

"She helps me walk," Stahlman said. "I'd lose my balance and she will catch me and brace me."

He said the Paws for Patriots program is fantastic and he tells everyone that Goldie was trained in the program.

Stahlman thanked everyone involved.

"I think y'all probably saved my life," Stahlman said.

Rowdy has recently lived for the past month at the Talihina Veterans Center with U.S. Air Force veteran Elizabeth Dukes, who suffers from PTSD and mobility issues.

"Rowdy has changed my life," said Dukes. "He's gave me more confidence; he's made me more active; he's just a little safety net for me."

She said the other veterans living at the center benefit from Rowdy's presence.

After speaking with the attendees, Dukes exhibited Rowdy's abilities with props — opening and closing doors, flipping a light switch, and grabbing an item out of the refrigerator.

Dukes also explained how Rowdy "watches her six" and eases her anxiety in stressful situations.

JBCC Warden Greg Breslin said the program — which operates at no cost to the State of Oklahoma — allows inmates to train the dogs in addition to having their regular jobs at the prison.

"I believe in the program," Breslin said. "I think I'd like to see this continue for the rest of the time."

Tammi Chaky is a unit secretary at JBCC who is a former dog trainer and helps the inmates with their canine students.

She said watching the transformations of the dogs and the owners through the program is incredible.

"I am so proud of Oklahoma and this prison for doing this," Chaky said.


Information from: McAlester News-Capital,