A new partnership between State Correctional Institution Mercer and Guardian Angel Medical Service Dogs, Inc. is designed to help veterans struggling with disabilities.

Officials with SCI-Mercer say the seeds of the program began in January 2017 after SCI-Mercer was on a list of facilities slated to possibly close.

SCI-Mercer did not close but added a Veterans Service Unit. After talking with the Department of Military Affairs about helping veterans in the unit to gain educational credits and job skills, Sen. Michele Brooks and military officials found the Guardian Angel Dogs.

While other nonprofits train dogs as companions in other facilities, these dogs are specially trained medical service dogs that help veterans with post-traumatic stress and other medical needs.

All of the trained dogs stay in Pennsylvania.

While at SCI-Mercer, the dogs are trained to help veterans living in the community.

Sen. Michele Brooks worked extensively with Carol Borden of Guardian Angel Medical Service Dogs and Pittsburgh Steelers great and Vietnam veteran Rocky Bleier to make the partnership possible.

Officials with SCI-Mercer say 12 inmates are in the program and are in their college-accredited apprenticeship program. They will earn valuable skills that may result in saving lives through the amazing things service dogs do for individuals with disabilities, making them more employable once they return to their communities.

There are multiple levels to the comprehensive training, which includes classroom study for the inmates. Other training includes hands-on levels, including socialization, desensitization, confidence building, basic obedience, house training, and advanced skill work.

Once the inmates complete the program, they will earn professional service dog training titles to add to their resume.

SCI-Mercer is the first Pennsylvania prison to partner with Guardian Angel Medical Service Dogs, Inc. in the program.