The milestones don’t stop for the Gulf County’s DAWGS in Prison program.
Last Wednesday, the Developing Adoptable Dogs With Good Sociability program, based out of the Gulf Forestry Camp in White City, graduated its 33rd class and all nine pups were adopted into “forever homes.”
The partnership between the Florida Department of Corrections, the Board of County Commissioners and the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society provides inmates the opportunity to train rescued dogs with basic obedience skills.
The pairing leads to the creation of socialized dogs ready for adoption while the inmates learn a viable job skill that can be put to use upon release.
With the latest graduation numbers added to the program’s five-year tally, 344 dogs have graduated to new homes and 392 inmates have participated in the program.
During each class dogs are brought from the humane society in Port St. Joe to spend eight weeks with a group of inmate trainers, handlers and caretakers.
While the dogs learn new skills the inmates learn compassion, patience, tolerance and teamwork.
“Most of these men have never known unconditional love in their lives,” DAWGS co-director Sandi Christy told the adopters who were present to watch the graduation ceremony. “The dogs teach the inmates so much about love.
“You’ll be changed forever by this dog.”
Once the canine commencement was complete, dogs left to live with new families in Mexico Beach, Panama City, Cape San Blas, and as far away as Indiana, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Before the ceremony ended, Assistant Warden Steve Roddenberry took to the podium to thank Christy and co-director Judy Miick for their hard work and dedication to the DAWGS program.
He presented them with a plaque in recognition of their accomplishments.
“We’re so thankful to have a very forward-thinking warden,” said Christy. “So much goes into the work with the dogs and we’re so grateful to the adopters for giving them a better life.”
Pauley, a hound/pointer mix was headed to Hilliard, Fla. to live with new owner Chris Kirkland, a former Nassau County commissioner.
Kirkland said that while serving as commissioner he was heavily involved in Nassau’s animal control duties. After taking a stray English sheepdog off the streets he later adopted the animal and after many years together, Kirkland’s dog passed away from cancer earlier in the year.
He saw the DAWGS program as the perfect route to find a new companion.
“The program was intriguing and it’s a win-win for the inmates and the animals,” said Kirkland. “These programs are rehabilitating dogs that may otherwise be euthanized.”
After completing the application process Kirkland visited the SJBHS and met Pauley. Kirkland said that due to Pauley’s good disposition and compatibility with his other dog, a Malamar, he knew he’d found the latest addition to the family.
“There are so many pets and so few homes,” said Kirkland. “A pet is a commitment.
“Do your homework and don’t make a snap decision.”
Lynda and Jim White hadn’t owned a dog in eight years but after recently moving to Cape San Blas and seeing the dog-friendly side of Gulf County, they knew it was time.
The couple wanted a sweet, medium-sized dog and after their own visit to the SJBHS, they found their perfect match in Belle, a hound mix that Jim described as “loveable, but not too crazy.”
“People should consider a program like this before buying a dog from a puppy mill,” said Lynda. “There are so many great dogs that need a home.
“I like that we get to save a life.”
After the celebration concluded with cake adopters attended a class that covered basic commands, feeding, kenneling and tips for integrating the dogs into their homes.
Adopters were given time to learn one-on-one from the trainers on how to best handle their pups while they practiced the commands. Adopters also received DVD videos from the training teams to remind them how each command worked, along with visual aids.
John Dykema, a Port St. Joe resident, has been a volunteer with the DAWGS program for the last four months.
Prior to moving to Gulf County, Dykema spent eight years training puppies as service dogs in Michigan. He visits the Gulf Forestry Camp once a week to oversee training and offer assistance to the inmates.
“I see a drastic difference in the inmates--a huge difference as their self-esteem and patience goes up,” said Dykema. “They become a different individual.”
Dykema said he volunteers because he enjoys watching the advancement of the inmates but also because he enjoys seeing the trainers appreciate and love the dogs.
“Those dogs give it all back to their adopters,” Dykema said.
As graduation came to a close, many dogs took their first car rides with their new owners while other graduates would soon board a transport where they’d be picked up by their adopters.
Every day across the U.S. 10,000 dogs are euthanized due to lack of homes and limited shelter space and resources. Christy reminded Gulf County residents of the free spay and neuter programs offered by the humane society and asked pet owners not to let their animals roam.
“We work hard to set the dogs up for success,” said Christy. “It’s critical we keep this program going.”