FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — Joe Buzay is direct when he talks about the value of his service dog, Frankie.
"If it wasn't for him, I'd be dead right now," said Buzay, a U.S. Army veteran, who served in Somalia, where three of his buddies were killed.
"I got out (of the service) in '94 and I just started drinking and I did that for 15 years," he told the Fremont Tribune (http://bit.ly/1c3DHx2).
He quit drinking in 2009, but his life still fell apart. The next year, he attempted suicide.
"I took enough pills to drop a Clydesdale," the Minnesota man said.
His heart stopped twice and a doctor told Joe's mom that he didn't think the veteran would survive, but he did. Months later he got a canine helper through the Patriot Assistance Dogs program.
"I was a real mess when I got Frankie, but once I met him, everything changed," he said.
Buzay is among several veterans who've benefited from a specially trained dog.
Now, the Second Chance Pups organization is partnering with PAD to help provide dogs to veterans.
Through the organization, a dog from Fremont and two from Wahoo are among nine being trained by inmates of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. In March, the dogs will graduate and go for more training at PAD in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Former Fremonters Kim Ostermann and Susan Traudt are part of the pups group in Lincoln. Ostermann is director and Traudt is marketing and fundraising coordinator of the all-volunteer organization.
SCP, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall, is the prison training and adoption program at the penitentiary. The organization gets dogs from surrounding shelters.
Traudt said a border collie-mix named Chet came from the Dodge County Humane Society in Fremont.
"He had a very outgoing personality and really wanted to please," Traudt said. "He does have a lot of energy, but we're harnessing it in the right way and he's doing very well through training."
Beth, a boxer-Labrador retriever mix, and Duke, a yellow lab, came from Saunders County Lost Pets Rescue. Beth was friendly and not afraid to approach people.
"They have to be smart dogs that can be thoroughly fearless of being out in public, but not forget that they are to do a service to the veterans," Traudt said.
Traudt has no doubt that Duke, a mellow and intelligent dog, will graduate — and his training is going well.
The dogs are being trained to accept friendly strangers, walk through a crowd, sit, stay and other skills. Inmates who work with dogs gain extra privileges.
"It's an amazing program for the guys," Traudt said. "They have an opportunity to learn a skill and give back to the community in a really positive way. . They engage more with other prisoners. They have high expectations of how to act while they're training. It helps lift them to a new level."
Dogs that might be overlooked for adoption because they were too shy, excitable, barky or jumpy get a second chance.
"Everybody wins," Traudt said.
The dogs are in training for the entire nine weeks, except at night when inmates are sleeping.
"We know these dogs inside and out by the time they graduate so the matching process is a lot easier," Traudt said.
Dogs graduate with Canine Good Citizen certification an American Kennel Club designation and are readopted by area families, who get a fully trained animal with no guessing about whether the dog is good with children or other pets.
After graduating, Chet and the other dogs are scheduled to go to PAD in Detroit Lakes, Minn., to become psychiatric assistance dogs.
There, dogs are taught to awaken veterans from night terrors. And the dogs, which can sense a veteran's blood pressure, heart rate and increase in breathing rate, are trained to interrupt a veteran's panic attacks.
"He (Frankie) wakes me up from nightmares," Buzay said. "He knows I'm going to have a panic attack before I do. If I start shaking, he's right there."
The dogs also are taught how to maintain personal space by standing in between the veteran and anyone approaching him or her. A dog may circle around the veteran or stand next to him, facing the opposite way, or directly behind him — helping the veteran with anxiety, hyper vigilance or paranoia, stemming from combat situations.
"You think about the (soldiers) that go after a location is bombed and go in to clear to make sure nobody is left there. They always go in as teams; somebody always has their back. Now, they've got a battle buddy that has their back again," said PAD trainer Linda Wiedewitsch.
Dogs also are trained to go up a set of stairs to show the veteran that nothing sinister is there. They are taught to direct anxious veterans to exits, interrupt harmful behavior and get help when necessary.
In addition, dogs are taught to remind veterans to take medication. Dogs are put on a feeding schedule that aligns with the veterans' medication timetable. A sign reminding the veteran to take his medicine can be placed near the dog food. When the dog wants to be fed, it's a reminder to the veteran to take his or her medication.
"We train the dogs to meet the needs of each individual veteran," Wiedewitsch said.
Buzay can attest to how Frankie, a boxer-husky mix, has improved his life.
Before Frankie, Joe avoided being around people. He only left his apartment about once every three weeks in the middle of the night to get groceries or buy gas, or during the day to go to a Veterans Administration appointment.
Then he met Frankie.
Last fall, Frankie was received a Hero Award for Pets from the Salvation Army and recently earned The Companion of the Year Award from Minnesota veterans.
Buzay was able to be in the room with about 300 people as his pal was honored — something he couldn't have done two years ago, Wiedewitsch said.
"He's completely changed my life around," Buzay said of Frankie. "Two years ago I had nothing. Now I've got a truck and a four-wheeler with a plow, a boat and I'm buying a house.."
Buzay still struggles with depression, but Frankie helps at those times, too.
"All I have to do is look in his eyes and it's gone," Buzay said. "Frankie is just amazing. That unconditional love just heals anything."
Information from: Fremont Tribune, http://www.fremontneb.com