Paws for celebration.
Last Wednesday, the Developing Adoptable Dogs With Good Sociability (DAWGS in Prison) program, based out of the Gulf Forestry Camp in White City, graduated its 34th class.
The program, a partnership between the Florida Department of Corrections, the Board of County Commissioners and the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society, provides inmates the opportunity work as trainers for the rescued dogs, teaching the animals basic obedience skills and making them adoptable.
In the five years since the program’s conception, 355 dogs have graduated the program and 398 inmates have learned the skills of compassion, patience, tolerance and teamwork, all of which will aid them in securing employment upon release.
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.
“If our dogs could talk, they would marvel at the compassion and attention they receive here,” said DAWGS co-director Sandi Christy during her graduation speech where she addressed inmates, volunteers and adopters.
“They would tell us the finally have a purpose and enjoy learning new things.”
Once the commencement ceremony was complete, the dogs were reintroduced to their new families for some face-to-face time.
During a training overview inmate caretakers covered basic commands, feeding, kenneling and tips for integrating the dogs into their homes. Once the proud new owners had mastered the commands the pups headed out of the camp to live with families in around Florida, Rhode Island and New York.
Of the 11 in the class, nine were adopted into “forever homes,” though Christy said that if dogs aren’t adopted from a class, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. Some dogs may not do well around cats or children and simply have more specific needs. Christy said she strives to find the best fits for both pets and their owners.
“This journey will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever know,” Christy told adopters during the ceremony.
Randall Hughes, who lives outside of Boston, was visiting her parents on Cape San Blas earlier in the year when she read about the DAWGS program in the newspaper.
“I read about it in the paper and thought it would be a great program if we wanted to get a dog,” said Hughes.
Just a few months later, Hughes made the decision to increase the family size by one and adopt a dog.
True to her word, Hughes returned to Gulf County in April where she and her children, ages five and seven, visited the humane society. After being introduced to several dogs, Hughes decided on Scout, a female black lab mix.
“Scout was very energetic and friendly,” said Hughes. “She’s a really good fit.”
Hughes said that the program was more than a benefit to adopters; it also helped the trainers involved.
She admitted she felt some remorse for taking Scout from the men who had built such a connection with her over the training period, but was happy that a new class of canines would quickly be brought in to take her place.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” said Hughes. “You can see the program benefits the inmates too and those benefits outweigh the sadness.”
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.