The passion still simmered, but it was time to walk away.




The passion still simmered, but it was time to walk away.

Nine years after birthing the idea and as the Developing Adoptable dogs with Good Sociability in Prison program celebrates eight years of saving lives, dogs’ and, in many cases, in inmates,’ Sandi Christy and Judy Miick announced they are retiring as co-directors of the program.

The two provided the board of the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society a 60-day notice, giving time to transition to a new director, but much of the fuel for the program, an example, sometimes hard to find, of a public/private partnership that actually worked, came from Christy and Miick.

Put it in canine terms: these are St. Bernard-sized paws to fill.

Oh, there have been great partners.

The Board of County Commissioners lent support to the vision early on and the Florida Department of Corrections, and the Gulf Forestry Camp where the program is housed, have also been on board.

The SJBHS, and shelter director Melody Townsend, have provided needed support in identifying and guiding dogs into and through the program.

Jay King, who owns an obedience school in Tallahassee, came to the table with the curriculum and education to build the framework for the eight-week training course.

A course, which over time, came to provide life-saving skills such as obedience, patience and discipline not just to the dogs, but to the inmates, many of whom took the training they received directly into the workforce.

One inmate, in prison more than two decades all told, more than half of his life to that point, was an early graduate of DAWGS and went on to meaningful work in Oregon.

And, my, the program’s reach.

More than 500 dogs, 532 to be exact, have been moved from a shelter life, trained for eight weeks or more, and been placed in homes spanning 23 states and three countries.

One dog, owned by a military family, has literally traveled the world.

A dozen households now own two DAWGS graduates: a family household in New York City, of all places, now has a third DAWGS graduate, each one a Walker hound.

All from Gulf County.

“The program has a good reputation,” Christy said in a classic understatement. “The program needs to continue. We have built a firm foundation and structure.”

There is also little question about the rewards, Christy said.

She and Miick can step aside for new blood knowing they have impacted not just one life, but more than 500 two-legged lives, the number of inmates involved in the program over the eight years.

“There is much joy,” Christy said. “Judy and I look back at the all the years and we would do it again in a minute.

“It does feel good to save lives, to impact lives. We’ve been fortunate.”

But with most any endeavor, success is a product of hard work, in this case many hours, volunteer hours at that, consumed ensuring the right match to dog to inmate-trainer and dog to owner; the ultimate graduation of the dog.

The application process for prospective owners is designed with specific questions to match owner and dog.

Christy does an interview, at least by phone, and a home visit when possible.

For many adoptions which have taken place in the Northeast, Christy works with the America Lab Rescue organization for home visits.

A woman in New York who adopted a DAWGS in Prison graduate performs the home visits in New York City, where, amazingly, Christy has placed seven dogs.

Multiply that application work by 10 dogs in each of 52 classes that will have graduated after Wednesday’s graduation ceremony.

“The adoption piece takes a lot of time and work,” Christy said.

And that is only that aspect: there is also the eight weeks of training and ensuring success with the training teams, which consist of trainer, handler and caretaker with inmates serving also as lead trainers.

“Every dog and inmate are unique,” Christy said. “We have to match dog and its unique personality to the right inmate and their personality. Everyone is different.

“But that is going to make the dog successful and being successful will allow that dog to be adopted.”

All of it requires supervision on the part of Christy and Miick, who are at the Gulf Forestry camp three, four days a week.

But, that kind of workload, and, a reminder, a volunteer work load, grinds with time.

Christy said she and Miick, both now 60, have other things that draw their attention, such as grandchildren.

“We have been trying to find the people to replace us for a while but they are not easy to find,” Christy said, noting such a person would need to be mature, composed, able to deal with people and able to bite their tongue when needed.

“We came to the decision recently that it was finally time. We gave the 60-day notice so we can get the next class in and get them going.”

Time had simply arrived for new blood into what Christy hopes might become a paid position pending the outcome of a grant application she has submitted.

“We will help (the SJBHS board) come up with a plan to keep the program going,” Christy said. “(The program) just makes me smile.

“We smile a lot, especially when it all works out.”

Chances are high when Christy and Miick depart, some of those smiles will meld with tears.