Asper was just days away from certain death.

Asper was just days away from certain death.

In the shelter at the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society for more than six months, Asper, a middle-aged black lab, was just days away from euthanasia, one of many similarly-situated dogs.

She needed obedience training and socialization but the clock was ticking.

But Asper found reprieve in the form of John Kelly, in inmate at the Gulf Forestry Camp, and the DAWGS in Prison Program. DAWGS stands for Developing Adoptable Dogs with Good Sociability.

Since 2009, the program has saved more than 250 dogs situated just like Asper, without a home and with little hope for adoption as the sands in the clock trickle away.

Today, Asper is in a new home in Connecticut, a happy dog in a new family enjoying a rebirth in life.

“In our nation’s correctional systems, more than one million men, women and young adults are living their lives in confinement,” said Sandi Christy, co-director of the DAWGS in Prison program. “Meanwhile, 15 million prisoners of a different sort are facing a possible death sentence.

“They’re dogs with whom we share our world and they’ve committed no crimes, but they will be punished unless someone steps forward and gives them a second chance.”

Last week, the DAWGS in Prison program graduated another 11 dogs from an eight-week training program aimed at turning abandoned or unloved dogs into the kind of pets any family would enjoy.

The day is bittersweet for the inmates, who in teams care for the dogs 24/7 while also training them for their “forever home.”

“That is the part that hurts most,” said one team leader. “But knowing that he goes home to a better place, somewhere that he’s going to be loved unconditionally for the rest of his life … it doesn’t bother me that much.”

The upside is that later on the day of graduation, a new class of 11-12 dogs will arrive at the Gulf Forestry Camp for their journey to new homes.

The 11 dogs graduating last week were destined for new homes in Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. DAWGS in Prison has placed dogs in 14 different states since 2009.

Nearly 300 inmates have participated in the program, moving up the organizational ladder within each team from caretaker to handler to trainer to team leader.

Kelly, who has participated in the program since March of last year has personally trained, and thus saved, 10 dogs.

Enrique Santos, in the program since November 2009, has trained 12 dogs and is, like Kelly, a team leader.

“I’ve learned responsibility, I’ve learned how to be a teacher, a better person and how to communicate with other people,” Kelly said. “It has just made me a better all-around person.”

Several inmates have gone on to work with dogs once released. One former inmate works for a veterinary doctor in Oregon, another with a shelter in Sarasota.

The dogs are screened the St. Joseph Humane Society shelter for sociability and their ability to be trained. The inmates apply with Gulf Forestry Camp staff and are chosen and remain in the program based on hard work and their willingness to, well, get with the program.

Once matched with a dog, inmates are responsible for the dogs care: feeding, grooming, housebreaking and obedience training.

The inmate teams are charged with keeping meticulous records of the care provided each dog.

“Both of these groups, inmates and dogs, face isolation and rejection, but when their paths merge, they often give each other hope, as one prisoner becomes the salvation of the other,” Christy said.

Or, as team leader, Derek Joseph, who was recently released after serving a little more than two years said, the program offers inmate and dog alike a second chance.

“It is a second chance really,” Joseph said. “We all got second chances and I believe the dog deserves a second chance just as well as we do.”