Sandi Christy and Judy Miick hatched a simple idea five years ago.
The two were hoping to make a difference for shelter dogs at the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society and maybe impact the lives of inmates at the Gulf Forestry Camp.
After a year of research and planning, examining similar programs at state prisons, Christy and Miick, with collaboration from the Florida Department of Corrections and the Board of County Commissioners, launched DAWGS in Prison.
DAWGS stands for Developing Adoptable dogs with Good Sociability and to assert that four years later the program is a barking success would represent the understatement of the year.
With the graduation of Class 26 last week, the DAWGS in Prison program has now placed 285 shelter dogs that might not be bounding anywhere in permanent homes in 15 states, from Florida to New Jersey to Ohio.
All but one dog adopted last week went to homes in Florida; one was destined for Pennsylvania.
In the process, 300 inmates have participated in the program, serving as everything from caretaker to trainer to team leader, with several taking their skills behind the bars to productive jobs.
Each dog is tested for temperament and ability to be trained. All inmates must apply and undergo an interview process to participate in the program.
The applicants far outnumber the available slots.
“Judy and I would never have forecasted this when we began planning for DAWGS,” Christy said last week. “The past four years have been a never-ending celebration of our dogs, their new families and the success of our inmates.
“Many of these trainers stay in touch with us and tell us they are living productive lives – some as dog trainers. We hope for more successes and celebrations.”
The DAWGS in Prison program could even serve as a game somewhat along “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon.”
The family of Wesley Wendel adopted Gracie several years ago.
Wesley is autistic and had never shown affection to family or slept through the night.
But after his mom, Susan, an award-winning reporter with Palm Beach Post adopted Gracie, Wesley was transformed into a happy, more affectionate child who now sleeps through the night, Gracie at his side.
Susan Wendel recently wrote a book entitled “Until I Say Goodbye”, a heart-rending account of her battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which steadily robs the body of the ability to function. It is fatal and Susan Wendel is dying.
Gracie graces the cover of the book and plays a major role in the book, included in Susan Wendel’s “little things she loves.”
Christy recently received a call from a mother in Connecticut who read Wendel’s book and expressed an interest in adopting a dog from the DAWGS in Prison program.
“Gracie and Susan’s legacy continues,” Christy said.
There is also the unforgettable story of Dante, adopted to serve as aid to his diabetic owner, receiving additional training after the eight weeks of DAWGS in Prison.
Dogs are amazingly able to sense changes in body chemistry that alert them to dangers for their owners. One day, Dante saved his owner’s live when he lapsed into a diabetic coma, alerting the man’s wife to the need for immediate medical attention.
Christy has found pen-pals in many of the new dog owners. They write updates to let the folks at the Forestry Camp know about the fate of the dogs they have trained and the new lives in their “forever” homes.”
Col. Dave Delmonico adopted Skye two years ago. The dog has now traveled around the world with Delmonico’s Air Force family.
“I just wanted to touch base and let you know that Skye had a little adventure, but it has ended happily,” Delmonico wrote to Christy. “We were forced to leave Venezuela due to political reasons and were not allowed to travel with Skye.
“She was always in good hands with friends in the embassy, but she was a true ‘political prisoner’ for a month. Anyway, she is now happily reunited with us and settling into her new digs in Arizona. Hope all is well with you and your staff. Thanks for all you do.”
The success of the program has also proved that for some, one dog is not enough.
Guy and Marnie Willis from Navarre were present last week to adopt Greyson, who also happened to be his graduating class’s top dog.
The Willises previously adopted Mandy, a hound who was a survivor of abuse and neglect.
That makes the Willis family the eighth family to adopt two dogs from the program.
The Humane Society is in need of volunteers for DAWGS in Prison and other programs. Interested folks are encouraged to contact Christy at 229-1431 or Miick at 899-3010 or the Humane Society shelter at 227-1103.