Prison inmates turned dog trainers take part in graduation ceremony next week.

The former New River O work camp in Raiford had sponsored the ADAPT program, where inmates provide obedience training to dogs from a local humane shelter. (Photo by Dave Raith).

WHITE CITY – Once a month, if not much sooner than that, Sandi Christy’s office on the Florida gulf coast gets calls from people looking to adopt a dog.
And they’re usually from New Jersey.
The fact that Christy’s humane shelter office is in the Florida Panhandle and the callers are in the Mid-Atlantic doesn’t surprise her a bit. It started when a woman from a town in New Jersey called Basking Ridge adopted one of Christy’s dogs, then decided to help spread the word about the dogs at the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society.
“She went to the local Starbucks,” Christy said. “And she just made a flyer, and she took pictures off our Web site and posted a flyer with those little tear offs, and we get applications every month, if not every week, by people who happen to see this flyer in Starbucks.”
What’s unique about the shelter, said Christy, its executive director, is that the dogs are given obedience training before they’re put up for adoption, and spend months learning how to be friendly and relaxed around people.
And they learn it from inmates in a Florida state prison – by living in the dorms with the inmates.
“We have an amazing success rate,” Christy said. “We now have dogs placed in 13 states. Our dogs don’t just stay in Florida and Georgia and Alabama.”
This unique program has proven to be very beneficial to the inmates, she added.
“We’re making a difference in some of these men’s lives, and the goal is to reduce recidivism,” she said.
The program is called DAWGS, which stands for Developing Adoptable dogs With Good Sociability. The program brings together rescued dogs from the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society with inmates housed at the Gulf Correctional Institution’s Gulf Forestry Camp in White City, a town on the Panhandle. The inmates who take part in this program are taught by a professional dog trainer how to work with the dogs delivered to the prison, and the dogs are subsequently taught to sit, stay, come and walk by a person’s side without being pulled on a leash.
On Wednesday, June 6, the prison will host the 20th DAWGS graduation ceremony, and Christy said this program has been an enormous help for the shelter in finding families for the dogs housed there, while at the same time providing valuable job skills for inmates who will eventually get released.
“As of next week, we will have graduated 211 dogs,” Christy said. “That will be our 20th class, and I have success stories about inmates who have been released and gone on to get jobs as trainers, full-time. The program gives them a good sense of responsibility. For a lot of these men, they’re not hardened criminals, but they’ve never had to be responsible for anyone in their life, and now they have to be responsible for these dogs.”
There are 40 inmates who take part in the program, and many of them “have gone on to be team leaders, and they have to learn team work,” Christy said. “Many of them tell me it’s the first time they’ve ever cared about anything.”
The Florida Department of Corrections notes on its Web site that it supports programs like DAWGS because it helps reduce the state’s recidivism rate.
“Currently one of every three inmates released from the Florida prison system returns to prison within three years,” DOC notes, while adding that DAWGS “is focusing on teaching inmates viable job skills that will lead them to productive jobs and law-abiding lives upon release.”
DOC sponsors similar programs at other state prisons. One is ADAPT, which stands for Adoptable Dogs After Prisoner Training. 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 that was shut down in April.
At the Tomoka Correctional Institute, a prison work camp in Daytona Beach, the inmates take part in the Prison Pups N Pals program.
In all of these programs, dogs are brought out of local humane shelters and transferred into the prisons, where inmates learn how to make them more relaxed and comfortable around people, and therefore easier for families to adopt them. Otherwise, many of the dogs that have been abused or neglected are afraid of people, and it’s difficult to find a home willing to take them in.
Christy said this is one program that definitely works, both to prevent dogs from being put to sleep, and to give inmates a shot at a better life after they leave prison.
“Our program, I would definitely classify it as being tremendously successful in the three years we’ve been doing it,” she said. “I’ve been on the board of directors of the local Humane Society for many years, and we knew they had a similar program in Perry, Florida. We decided that we would like to look into the possibility of doing one of these programs, and we took a trip over to Perry to the first one started there, and we liked what we saw. Before we went there, we approached the prison to see if they were even interested in doing it, and the warden was.”
There’s a reason they need programs like this. Christy said the collapse of the Florida housing market and the high home foreclosure rate has hurt a lot of families – but also proved devastating for their pets.
As families are forced out of their home due to foreclosure or the loss of a job, in many instances they can no longer bring their pets with them into an apartment — or can’t afford to continue caring for them, she said.
“We’ve had dogs left in yards, we’ve had dogs left in homes, and we’ve had dogs just turned loose, and dogs brought to the Humane Society and just left outside. We’ve had it all,” she said. “We still continue to see people deserting their animals when they lose their homes. It breaks your heart. When they bring the dog to us and leave it behind, sometimes we don’t even know the dog’s name or medical history or anything about it. We know nothing at all.”
In an effort to prevent families from simply abandoning their pets, the Humane Society has advertised in the community that the shelter is an available place ready to take them in, and help find a new home for them.
“We tell them ‘Bring them here,’ but they don’t always do that,” Christy said. “It is rather heartbreaking.”
They also have a problem, she said, because of the popularity of hunting in rural parts of the Florida Panhandle.
“The southern part of our economy is on the gulf, and it’s a tourist-driven economy,” she said. “As you get inland, it gets very rural, and we have people here who hunt with their dogs, and if the dog doesn’t come back right away, they’re abandoned, and we’ve had dogs found that are skin and bone. They hunt deer with dogs in this part of Florida, and they also hunt hogs, and that’s very dangerous. We’ve had dogs come to us that are gored.”
On Wednesday, the families adopting the dogs graduating from the latest DAWGS class will meet at the Gulf Forestry Camp at 3222 Doc Whitfield Road in White City for the graduation ceremony, watch the inmates demonstrate what their “students” have learned, and then take their new pet home. Christy said it’s always an exciting and uplifting time.
“We feel really good about what we’re doing here in our community,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can to care for these animals.”
To learn more, log on to the Web site at www.dawgsinprison.com, or call the shelter at 850-227-1103.

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