In late July 2011 Bob Pellito made the trip for the DAWGS in Prison graduation number 14 in search of a lifesaver.
He found one.
A resident of Spring Hill near Tampa, Pellito was one of two diabetics that day – the other was from Sarasota – who sought out DAWGS in Prison for a Diabetic Alert Dog, or DAD.
Pellito happened upon the DAWGS (Developing Adoptable Dogs with Good Sociability) in Prison program after making what he estimated to be at least 40 inquiries about potential service dogs, his contacts coming up empty again and again for varying reasons.
Cost was one factor, but there was another side of the leash for Pellito.
“We were looking to hopefully find a shelter dog,” he said.
And ultimately those seemingly endless days on the Internet proofed successful when he stumbled upon the DAWGS in Prison program at the Gulf Forestry Camp.
“I found this program after an intensive online search,” Pellito explained. “I was looking for a dog that had some training. I thought if the dog was somewhat trained, it would be easier to train to be a DAD.
“I’ve been unstable lately. I have been having problems with my blood sugar dropping.”
Pellito identified a lab/hound mix by the name of Sean as his choice, though he soon was making a rather unique request – could he change the dog’s name to Dante.
That request addressed – Dante/Sean graduated with his class in 2011– Pellito believed he had found the perfect choice as Labradors and hound dogs make the best DAD due to their acute sense of smell.
“All alert dog will smell, sense, that the body chemistry has changed and alert me to test my blood sugar or eat something,” Pellito explained. “I was looking for a lab for both their excellent sense of smell but also for their loyalty.”
Sean underwent additional training to become a service dog and constant companion to the man he will be charged with helping remain healthy.
“It will really be a constant retraining process, every day with the dog to make sure he does what he will be trained to do,” Pellito said.
That three out of the 14 dogs in the graduating class would be moving on to become service dogs represents just another chapter of success for a program that has authored a book.
Sean recently proved his worth, as detailed in a letter to Sandi Christy, co-director of the DAWGS program with the St. Joseph Humane Society, from his wife, who had just made a donation to the DAWGS program on behalf of her husband.
Pellito’s wife detailed that Dante has become a constant companion, trained as a DAD.
And, his wife details, Dante literally saved Pellito’s life recently.
“I had gone to bed early and Bob had fallen asleep at some point in another room,” Laurie Pellito wrote. “His blood sugar had dropped so low that he would not have been alive if someone hadn't intervened.
“At 3 a.m. Dante started barking and would not stop until I got up. Dante led me to Bob and paced the room until I could revive him. After Bob was okay, Dante fell back asleep. He had done his job and we have your program to thank.”
That letter was read recently during the 24th graduation of dogs from the DAWGS in Prison program.
“One of our dogs saving someone’s life, that is a first for our program,” Christy said.
The dogs in the 24th class are headed to new homes in Florida, Georgia and Connecticut. The DAWGS program has saved more than 260 dogs and placed them in new homes in 14 states.
Roughly the same number of inmates at the Gulf Forestry Camp has participated in the DAWGS program, working up the ladder from caretaker to team leader.
Dogs are screened for their potential to benefit from the program. Inmates must apply and undergo an interview process. To stay in the program, inmates and dogs alike must get with the program.
And in some cases, they serve to save each other in ways significant and small.
Consider Mandy, a 3-year-old foxhound who arrived at the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society living by a thread.
She had been without food and water for some time, Christy said. By the time she was discovered, other dogs on the property, in pens, had died of starvation. Mandy, on the outside of the pen, living long enough to attract the attention of neighbors who called Animal Control.
Her owner was arrested and charged with abuse and neglect.
Over a period of months, Mandy was nursed back to health, gaining some weight, able to stand and walk for progressively longer periods of time.
“Initially she would not make eye contact and her trainers in Class 24 could not get her to do a sit. She was afraid of almost everything,” Christy said.
“The DAWGS program has a proud tradition of saving shelter dogs. We are especially proud of the job we do with dogs who have been severely neglected or abused.”
Mandy’s training team, using the skills of discipline, caring for another being, passion for the task learned in the program by the inmates, saved Mandy.
“These men have saved her life and helped her to be a confident dog who performs many of her commands. She even learned about Christmas,” Christy said. “And, Mandy will stay in class 25 to keep working on her confidence and until her forever home is found.
“Not all our dogs go on to advanced training, but we believe most of our dogs have the intelligence and temperament to succeed in many endeavors. Recently we learned that Ryan, from class five, is not only a certified therapy dog, he also was asked to assist with the Newtown, CT tragedy.”
So, Christy said, the question is who saves who?
“We give of ourselves to help man’s best friend and he in turn gives all he has to help us, whether we are an inmate, an adopter, or a volunteer. We all help each other,” Christy said. “And certainly, the dogs here at Gulf Forestry Camp help their trainers become better men.”