Last week Andy sniffed out a new path for the DAWGS in Prison program.

Last week Andy sniffed out a new path for the DAWGS in Prison program.

One of the graduates from the program’s Class 29, Andy left last Wednesday for Arizona, making it 17 states and counting that have received a newly-trained canine from the Developing Adoptable Dogs with Good Sociability (DAWGS) in Prison program based at the Gulf Forestry Camp.

The number of states will increase with the next graduation in eight weeks when a dog will be adopted by a family in Chicago, adding Illinois to the list.

“We started this for the dogs but we continue this for the impact it also has on the inmates,” said Sandi Christy, with Judy Miick co-director of the DAWGS in Prison program. “I feel a sense of peace about this program. It is like I was meant to do this.”

DAWGS in Prison is one of the benchmark programs for the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society.

The program was featured at the top of the list last week during a community partnership meeting hosted with Gulf Correctional Institute as an example of initiatives aimed at returning inmates to society as productive individuals.

As of last week, the program has graduated 308 dogs in four-plus years while more than 320 inmates have been accepted, after applying, into the program, moving up a ladder from caretaker to trainer to lead trainer.

Inmates have gone on to use skills learned in DAWGS to work with animals in shelters, humane societies and veterinarians from Florida to Oregon.

“I cry a little at every graduation, but the inmates can change that,” Miick said. “They come up and tell me about all they have learned, about discipline, just caring about another being. That makes it all worthwhile.”

For the dogs, many of them either abandoned or turned into the shelter, the program is, literally, a life-saver.

Andy was given up by a family that grew impatient with him despite not providing the training, Christy said.

Siri was abandoned in the woods and until DAWGS had never learned to trust humans.

Paige was loved, Christy said, but never spayed and had produced too many puppies, taxing her body.

Ally was an admired gorgeous dog, but never trained or socialized with people.

“What we do know, if any of these dogs could talk, is that every dog here starts as a blank canvas,” Christy said. “His destiny is etched by the hands of a painter. Paint with hostility and a dog learns to fight. Paint with cruelty and he learns fear.

“Paint with praise and a dog learns confidence. Paint with boundaries and he learns respect. Paint with tenderness and a dog learns to bond. Paint with affection and he learns to love.”

Each dog, Christy added, is therefore a product of environment. Bad dogs are not born – they are painted, Christy said.

“Look to the artist and stop blaming the dog,” she added. “Here at DAWGS in Prison we take the flawed portrait and paint over it.”

And the painters at DAWGS in Prison, those inmates, learn tools while teaching the dogs.

The inmates, just as with the dogs coming from the Humane Society, apply and are screened. They get with the program, providing round-the-clock care to the eight to 10 members of each class or they leave the program.

They must keep meticulous records on each dog’s care, from feeding to bathroom breaks to teeth brushing and grooming.

Slack off and out of the program they go. But maintain focus and earning each step of the ladder of success in the program has its distinct dividends.

Inmates, upon their own graduation, provide feedback to program coordinators concerning what they got out of the program.

Christy provided just a sampling last week.

“These animals teach you a lot without saying a word; patience and peace of mind; spending your times caring for an animal so it can have a second chance,” one inmate wrote.

“I like working with the dogs. It gives me gratification seeing a dog transform, knowing I had a part in it,” wrote another.

“You are not just helping the dogs – the program helps you gain responsibility,” another noted, while another wrote, “There is something new to learn every day.”

Graduation day is bittersweet as they say goodbye to the dog they have trained as another class enters the gates at the Forestry Camp.

“So, in the end, who saves who, and who is the real artist?” Christy asked. “We like to think it is both man and dog, each playing their vital part in helping each other to become productive members of society.”