With more than 317 dogs trained and adopted to good homes, these are anything but dog days for the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society.
The Developing Adoptable Dogs with Good Sociability (DAWGS) in Prison program, based at the Gulf Forestry Camp, graduated its 30th class last week and brought to 17 the number of states the program has placed dogs in “forever” homes.
The dogs are chosen by St. Joseph Bay Humane Society director Melody Townsend and DAWGS program co-director Sandi Christy.
Together Townsend and Christy identify dogs that need some extra work on social skills to keep them from being at risk.
Of the latest class consisting of eight pups, seven were spoken for and one would be sticking around for some additional training.
While one canine was headed to Pennsylvania, the rest would be remaining in Florida.
Walter, a golden retriever was going home with Phillip Ramsey of Panama City.
Ramsey’s previous pup passed away and once he decided it was time to get another, he made an appointment to meet with the dogs that would be headed into the program.
As soon as he met Walter, the deal was sealed.
“He was everything I was looking for,” said Ramsey of his new pal. “He’s such a sweet dog. The entire process took 4-5 weeks but it gave me time to buy cages and food.”
Another graduate, Alva, went home with Kurt and Delania Robinson, also of Panama City.
Their daughters, ages five and 10, had asked for a dog for Christmas, so the parents took them to the Humane Society and let them pick out the next member of the family.
The Robinsons spoke highly of their experience adopting through DAWGS and said that they enjoyed receiving photos and videos of Alva as she went through the training process.
“The girls didn’t want to go to school today, if that tells you how excited they are,” laughed Kurt.
Sandy and Robert Voss of Calhoun County were on hand to adopt Ziva.
Sandy said that she heard about the DAWGS program on Facebook and kept an eye on it for a year before she and her husband decided that it was time to add another pet to the family.
They jumped at the chance to work with the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society and the program.
“The shelter is amazing,” said Sandy. “Why would you go any other way to adopt a dog? It’s the only shelter I’ve ever been to where my heart didn’t break.”
The Voss’ brought their current dog to the interview where it got to interact with Ziva, giving its sniff of approval.
The DAWGS program has been in existence for 4.5 years and during the eight-week program each canine receives around the clock care with more than 5,000 hours of training per dog.
“For one person to do that, it would take years,” said Major Neal Mercer with the Florida Department of Corrections during his welcome speech. “You’re not just getting a dog. It’s a whole lot more than that.”
The DAWGS initiative also aims to return inmates to society as productive individuals.
More than 320 inmates have been accepted into the application program. They begin as caretakers for the pups and with dedication and determination they move up to higher roles with more responsibility that includes trainer and lead trainer.
Inmates have gone on to use skills learned in DAWGS to work with animals in shelters, humane societies and veterinarian offices.
During the graduation ceremony, program director Christy told each dog’s story. She praised the inmates who participated in the program for the patience, persistence and teamwork they show with each new class.
“Trainers have to be calm and confident because the dogs take the energy,” said Christy. “I’m so proud of the job that the trainers have done. They take an animal and help it reach its full potential and adopters are richly rewarded with a new family member.”
Officer Kyra Burch, the new Program Coordinator with the Department of Corrections gave out the Top Dog award to Ramsey’s new best friend Walter. The award is bestowed on the canine that showed the most progress during training and the most promise for the future.
Ramsey gave both the trainers and his dog a standing ovation.
After the graduation ceremony concluded, trainers gave the new pet owners the basics of feeding and crating their new four-legged friends. A list of commands and a training DVD was also given to each adopter.
“I’m proud to be part of this life-changing experience,” Burch said.