RAIFORD – Antonio L. Gallegos sat holding a dog on a leash, and he occasionally had to reach down and scratch the pup on the belly to keep it from getting too excited. The dog, named Diesel, at times could barely contain its excitement about being in a room filled with so many people. Diesel relaxed only when its trainer, Gallegos, gave the highly animated dog some more attention.
Then the award was announced: that Diesel had been selected as the dog that had demonstrated the most improvement in its behavior. Gallegos accepted the award, then led Diesel around the room to show just how well behaved and mannered the dog was.
What was most unique about the event was where it got held – in a Florida prison near Starke – and the fact that the trainer, Gallegos, is an inmate at the facility. The 24-year-old Gallegos is serving a 10-year-sentence for armed burglary, but he spent the past few months taking part in a program that matches inmates with dogs that come directly out of a shelter in a neighboring county.
The program is called ADAPT, which stands for Adoptable Dogs After Prisoner Training, and it’s a collaboration between the Humane Society of Northeast Florida, Inc., a shelter in Putnam County, and the New River O-Unit Work Camp, a state prison. The concept is simple: the inmates train the dogs to become more obedient and friendlier with people, while the inmates learn a potentially valuable work skill.
ADAPT could also end up saving the lives of animals that might otherwise be euthanized because local shelters are full and the number of families looking to adopt them is too small, said Bobby Snow, the president of the Humane Society of Northeast Florida.
“With as many animals that are euthanized every year, the Northeast shelter is a no-kill shelter,” Snow said. “This helps us get them into a loving home, a caring home.”
This morning, the corrections officers who oversee the program held a graduation ceremony for the five dogs that took part in this program – in addition to Diesel, the others were Snowman, Eclipse, Rolanda and Missy. Held inside the prison’s Classification Office, the ceremony also included the 17 inmates who took part as either a trainer, handler or caretaker of one of the dogs, and representatives from the Humane Society. The audience also included three families – including one from Georgia – that had already agreed to adopt one of these dogs. Now they were just waiting to take them home.
“This is our third program,” said Sgt. Ryan Mason, who oversees the program for New River O. “We actually have some of our adopting families here, and we thank you for adopting these dogs.”
The way the program works is that Jay King, a dog obedience trainer who runs Jay King’s Dog Academy in Tallahassee, visits the prison and works with the inmates, teaching them how to train the dog to be well mannered and relaxed around people – which, in turn, can make the dogs easier to adopt.
”The trainer’s duty is to actually train the dog over a period of time,” King said. “We have team leaders. They teach the entire group.”
Mason said the inmates volunteer to be in the program, and that it’s been as beneficial for them as it has been for the dogs, since the inmates not only learn a professional skill, but it also allows them to realize they can apply themselves and accomplish something.
The dogs are trained by an inmate to sit, stay, come and walk by their side without being pulled on the leash. They’re also crate trained and housebroken.
The Florida Department of Corrections estimates that one out of every three inmates released from the Florida prison system returns to prison within three years. That’s why the department is using programs like ADAPT to teach inmates a viable job skill that could help them become law-abiding citizens once they get released.
New River O Officer Katrina Roberts, one of the program’s coordinators, said it would be hard to underestimate just how beneficial this program is for everyone involved – the Humane Society and its dogs, the Florida Department of Corrections and its staff, and the inmates. She also knows this from personal experience, because the very first dog to graduate, named Jefferson, ended up finding a home very quickly – Roberts’ home.
“I adopted the first dog out of the class,” Roberts said, adding that Jefferson has been a joy to have.
“I don’t think our house was complete without him,” she said. “I had two dogs, I had two cats. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dogs I have, but when we adopted Jefferson, he completed our family. He’s the comedy show of the household. He is such a blessing to us.”
Likewise, she said, inmates who came to New River O being very shy and introverted learn to become more people-oriented through ADAPT.
“I have seen the most reserved, quiet inmates become more open, and they have more of a presence after being in this program,” Roberts said. “It’s a wonderful program.”
Officer Andy Brown, who also coordinates the program, said when he first heard about it, he didn’t think it could work in a prison. The dogs live with the inmates inside their dorms for several months, until they’ve completed their training.
“At first I was really skeptical about the program, bringing dogs into this institution,” he said, adding that when he witnessed just how much it benefited the inmates, he changed his mind.
“It worked out a great deal,” he said. “I realized the program does a lot of good, including for inmates and staff. From day one, the inmates train these dogs that come in abused, malnourished, and who knows what else. They’re not used to being around a whole lot of people. But these inmates do a great job. After the eight week program, they’ve come a long way. Like everything else, it’s trial and error. As we go along, I think we’ll get better and better.”
“It brings the dogs out of their shell and gets them to socialize,” said Carol Brooks, the Humane Society’s recording secretary. “And the inmates get so much out of it. It gives them a sense that this may not be a bad career to go into once they get out. It gives them some leadership skills, and it gives them a lot of responsibility.”
Debbie Ross, who works at the Humane Society office in Hollister, agreed, saying this program actually saved the life of an eight-month-old dog like Diesel, who got adopted today.
“It’s very rewarding to see them find a home,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation for the owners.”
Brooks noted that as a non-profit, they rely on money given by the public, and don’t get state or county funds to operate with.
“We rely strictly on contributions,” Brooks said. “It’s all donations.”
ADAPT, Snow said, is a great way to highlight the Humane Society’s central mission: to find loving homes for abandoned or abused cats and dogs.
“I look forward to many, many more of these programs,” Snow said.
Brooks noted that in the last ADAPT program, six dogs got trained, and four were adopted. This time, three of the five dogs in ADAPT got adopted before the graduation ceremony was held.
“We have two more here that need homes,” Brooks said, “and they’re great dogs, too.”
To learn more about the Humane Society of Northeast Florida and the pets they have for adoption, call 386-325-1587, email email@example.com, or log on to www.hsnefl.com.
To learn more about the ADAPT program at the New River O Unit, call the prison at 904-368-3000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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