Julia Cunningham thought she was finished with dogs after losing her beloved white lab Sandman over the winter.

Julia Cunningham thought she was finished with dogs after losing her beloved white lab Sandman over the winter.

Vince Bishop had never experienced ownership of a dog he could call his own.

That the couple would come to adopt a dog from the 27th graduating class of the DAWGS in Prison program serves as an example of what makes the program a success.

After losing Sandman, Cunningham said she was finished with dogs, at least for the time being.

“I had just lost the love my life, my Sandman,” Cunningham said. “I wasn’t ready.”

But neighbor Sandi Christy, the co-director of DAWGS (Developing Adoptable dogs with Good Sociability) in Prison, asked if Cunningham and Bishop could serve as foster parents for 10 days for a dog about to enter the program.

“Maybe she sensed something, I don’t know,” Cunningham laughed. “Maybe she was playing with me.”

Bishop is a longtime supporter of DAWGS, donating the program’s website and website updates through his company Server Solutions.

Cunningham is a longtime supporter of the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society.

The dog, whose name is now Barley in recognition of Bishop’s favorite beverage, came to live with the couple as foster parents pending training and it didn’t take long before Cunningham was smitten.

The dog, a lab/spaniel mix, reminded Cunningham of Sandman and Maggie, a beagle breed owned by Cunningham that had also passed in recent years.

“He’s perfect,” Cunningham said. “He is such a blend of Sandman and Maggie. The dog finds you; that’s what happens. You don’t find the dog, the dog finds you.”

As for Bishop, “He fell in love with it,” Cunningham said.

There were, of course, some issues with Barley, another dog in the long line of canine that have navigated the DAWGS program after being raised in less than ideal circumstances.

While dogs are screened by the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society for temperament, health and ability to be trained, they share one thing: they are alone and facing an uncertain future before entering the eight weeks of training in the DAWGS program.

Barley was showing signs of experiencing separation anxiety while alone at the couple’s home and would nip the hands that fed and pet him.

But 10 days after dropping Barley off at the Gulf Forestry Camp where the training with inmate teams takes place, Cunningham said the changes were dramatic.

She and Bishop brought Barley home for a weekend, still serving as foster parents to Barley.

“He was a totally different dog,” Cunningham said. “He is very smart and he was just so much better.”

During the eight weeks of training, Christy’s primary task, one she works tirelessly at, is to match dogs with potential “forever” homes and families.

The fit must be right and Christy and her co-director Judy Miick, along with Humane Society director Melody Townsend, expend considerable time and energy to making the perfect match.

To date, 293 dogs have been trained and adopted into new homes. The program has experienced just one instance in which the match did not find traction.

As Christy reviewed the applications for Barley, none seemed to fit all the proper parameters.

Meanwhile Cunningham and Bishop were becoming more attached, less foster and more forever parents.

“I finally told Vince we really should make up our mind,” Cunningham said with a laugh. “Now he is graduated and he is just the perfect part of the family.”

Barley, Cunningham said, is about two years old and “has so much energy.”

And he carries daily reminders for Cunningham of best friends lost and new friends found.

She sees Sandman in the way Barley lays at her feet, for instance. As he picks at his food, she sees Maggie.

“The things he does are so much like a blend of those two dogs it is amazing,” Cunningham said.

The DAWGS in Prison program has not only graduated nearly 300 dogs in just over four years, it has seen nearly the same number of inmates – who must apply, interview and maintain rigorous standards to be part of the program – “graduate.”

The inmates move up the chain from caretaker to handler to trainer to lead trainer, honing skills that a number have used once out behind bars to become productive in life.

One inmate, behind bars for half his 40 years before being accepted into the DAWGS program, works with animals in the Pacific Northwest. Another found work with an animal shelter in Central Florida.

They learn during those eight weeks almost as much as the dogs.

“They learn the little steps,” Cunningham said. “They are learning patience, compassion, discipline. We did work with the inmates and they seemed to really care about the dogs and worked great with the dogs.

They become as much success stories as the DAWGS graduate trained to be diabetic alert dog that saved his owner’s life. Or the dog trained to be a companion for an autistic child, helping that child better cope with his challenges.

“There are so many things good things about that program,” Cunningham said. “Everything is right with that program.”

In addition to Cunningham and Bishop, one couple at the June 26 graduation was adopting their second graduate from DAWGS.

Parker, named the Top Dog in the class, is in New Jersey with a family of two young boys.

Because of strict spay/neuter laws in swaths of the Northeast, the demand for adoptable dogs is high.

Since its inception the DAWGS program has sent dozens of dogs to the Northeast corridor, Christy said.

The most recent graduates were sent to six states: Alabama, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida, Christy said.

With graduation of one class comes the arrival of another, an eight-dog class that will graduate Aug. 21.

For more information on the DAWGS in Prison program visit the website www.dawgsinprison.com.