Life behind bars is a life changing experience and at the Gulf Correctional Institution Forestry Camp, that's not only true for the incarcerated. A special program unites inmates and dogs... and it's not easy to see who benefits the most.
On Wednesday, the 24th class graduated from the Developing Adoptable Dogs With Good Sociability (DAWGS) program at the facility. The program brings rescue dogs from the St. Joseph Bay Humane Society together with inmates who provide obedience training.
By the time the eight week program ends, the dogs are crate trained, housebroken, spayed/neutered, and up to date on vaccinations. Since 2009, when the program was introduced, more than 200 dogs have graduated and been placed in "forever homes." The newest graduates are headed to homes in New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia and Florida.
"These dogs come from the streets or their owners bring them to us because they can't care for them," said Sandi Christy, director of the DAWGS In Prison program.
Some of the animals arrive at the Humane Society in horrible condition. Mandy, a three year old fox hound that was abused and neglected, watched her canine companions starve to death before she was rescued and her owner prosecuted on animal cruelty charges. A healthy but still wary Mandy graduated with the Wednesday class but will undergo further training before being placed in an adoptive home.
Christy said Mandy is a true success story. "Mandy was afraid of all of us... we couldn't get close to her, she wouldn't look us in the eyes," she said. "But she's now enjoying life here behind bars, building her confidence."
Mario Otero, who is serving a seven year sentence for burglary and grand theft, gets much of the credit for Mandy's turn around. "It takes a lot of time, a lot of dedication," said Otero. "It made me real proud that we accomplished something good."
Donna Haddock, a Florida Department of Corrections officer and the DAWGS program coordinator, said hard men doing hard time have a soft spot. "If you catch them in the quiet times with the dogs in the dorm when nobody's watching and they're just spending time with the dog, you can see the crack in the shell," she said. That compassion creates a bond that unites man and beast in a commitment to better themselves.
Christine Schaefer's family will enjoy the fruits of that labor. She attended the graduation ceremony and formally adopted Mallow to take home to her husband and two sons. "I think he's great... I think he will be a good fit for our family," said Schaefer. "I just thought it would be a really good thing for our first dog to be trained and already have that background."
A couple of four-legged DAWGS graduates have recently taken their training to the next level. One is credited with saving his owner's life by alerting a family member when the man fell into a diabetic coma. Another graduate was part of a team sent to comfort victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Officer Haddock said inmates working together for the benefit of their dogs teaches them patience and the ability to form positive relationships outside prison walls. "My hope is that something they get from the program will make them be a better father or brother or son or spouse when they do get home," said Haddock.
"Not everybody gets that kind of opportunity," said Otero. "I want to take advantage of that to become a better person."
"To see them master all these skills and go home and be a prized member of the family… makes us all proud," said Christy.
That's something that applies not only to the dogs, but to the men who train them, too.