This seems an appropriate time to “paws” for a retrospective.
The Developing Adoptable Dogs With Good Sociability (DAWGS) program, operated through a partnership between the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society, the Florida Department of Corrections and the Board of County Commissioners, will celebrate a milestone on April 2.
Not only will the 32nd class of pups graduate from their eight-week training regimen and be in search of good home, but it also marks the five-year anniversary of the program.
The program is based out of the Gulf Forestry Camp where rescued dogs are paired up with teams of inmate trainers for a program during which the animals will be crate-trained, house-trained and learn basic obedience.
After graduating, the pups are available for adoption immediately. The dogs are up-to-date on all vaccines, are spayed or neutered and are heartworm negative.
The mission of the DAWGS program is to provide training and education for both inmate and canines, resulting in permanent homes for the dogs, viable job skills for the inmate and a productive and law-abiding life upon release.
More than 330 dogs have been trained and adopted through the program. Those dogs now represent family pets in 19 states, predominantly in Florida and New England.
More than 320 inmates have acted as trainers since the program’s inception and by participating, inmates develop skills that can assist them upon release from the camp.
Potential jobs include kennel tech, unlicensed veterinarian assistant, working at a boarding facility, becoming a trainer for an existing business or even starting their own.
Though the program will celebrate its fifth anniversary next week, the idea came to fruition nearly seven years ago when members of the SJBHS heard about similar prison-based programs throughout Florida and thought it would make a great addition to Gulf County.
After putting a basic plan together, program director Sandi Christy took the idea to the BOCC to seek approval to align with a prison in the area. Christy and the board of directors then met with the warden of the Gulf Forestry Camp to discuss the possibility of getting the program started.
“We had visions of creating a long-lasting program,” said Christy. “It took a while getting it off the ground while setting a firm foundation.
“We didn’t realize it would be this successful.”
According to Christy, the warden was very excited by the idea and soon a program was being designed alongside Jay King’s Dog Academy out of Tallahassee, a company that had designed curriculums for other prison programs.
Once it was time to implement the program, Christy, along with program supporter Gary Gibbs picked up co-director Judy Miick and Forestry Camp officer Donna Haddock as coordinator and the first class launched in June 2009.
“The people I’m lucky enough to work with are like-minded,” said Christy. “They do everything we need to do in order to succeed.”
Of the 334 adopters each has their own story of how they found the DAWGS program and how it has changed their lives.
Brenda Sherer from Torrington, CT lost her family hound and after two years, in February 2010, she felt the call for a new companion. She and her husband knew they didn’t have the energy for a puppy and getting a rescue pet was important.
Sherer scoured the local shelters but after not finding the perfect pet she went to the Pet Finder website which took her to American Lab Rescue and ultimately to the DAWGS in Prison website.
There she and her husband fell for a three-inch photo of Ryan, a black lab mix.
Sherer filed her application through the website on Sunday and the following day received a call from Christy during which they completed a set of interview questions to see if Ryan might be a good fit for the family.
After passing the prerequisites for adoption, Sherer learned that Ryan was still in class and there would be a short wait. Six weeks later, Ryan was being transported to Connecticut with his “Top Dog” award, given to the dog in each class that thrives in the program and shows a high learning aptitude.
After getting Ryan home it didn’t take the canine long to become a member of the family. Ryan was so well behaved that the Sherers became involved in local pet therapy classes, taking Ryan to a reading program for special needs children along with physical rehabilitation centers.
Ryan became more than a new dog; he exposed his family to new opportunities in the community.
“I can’t express to you how DAWGs has changed our life,” said Sherer. “It brought me to volunteerism. It was a God-send that brought a whole new world to us.”
After the positive experience with Ryan, it was time for the Sherer family to expand once again and in 2012 the family brought home Pepper, also through the DAWGS program.
Sherer said that since adoption both dogs have been doing wonderfully and are grateful for everyone involved with DAWGS for the positive experiences.
“There’s nothing like giving a dog and a prisoner a second chance,” said Sherer. “It’s two-fold.”
Carol Parillo from New Jersey shared a similar story. In 2010 she lost the family pooch and even though she believed that she was too heartbroken to ever get another pet, she found herself scouring the Internet just a month later.
After running across the DAWGS program, Parillo fell in love with a terrier mix named Cooper and immediately reached out to Christy.
After passing the interview and being cleared to adopt, Parillo had a six-week wait while Cooper completed the program. After graduating, Cooper was transported to Jersey to meet his new family.
“The fact that Cooper was trained was wonderful,” said Parillo. “He was mellow, calm and great—he’s a couch potato.
“It’s so beyond what I had hoped for.”
Sherer and Parillo have made lifelong friends with their pets and take every opportunity to talk up the DAWGS program. Each time a new class begins training, Parillo prints out photos of the dogs and hangs up a flyer at her local Starbucks coffee house with tear away tags that list the DAWGS website address.
As the canines are adopted, she goes back to cross them off the flyer. She said that she’s developed great relationships with four other adopters in her immediate area.
“It’s such a great program for everyone involved,” said Parillo. “Why go to a puppy mill when you can get a perfectly adoptable dog?”
Those interested in adopting can visit www.dawgsinprison.com and those who may be interested in volunteering with the DAWGs program or with the humane society can call 227-1103 to get involved.
“It’s amazing to me the wonderful network we have working for the good of the dogs and the inmates,” said Christy. “It’s a partnership.
“There’s no reason why the program can’t continue to go forward–it’s not dependent on an individual for success.”