I’m on my way to graduation ceremonies of some four footed critters who have been in intensive training for the past 10 weeks. I am on my way to Bay Correctional Facility in Panama City, Florida.
At the front entrance, I wait on the electric operated door to open and admit me. I take off my shoes and have my possessions scanned before being admitted. Several Alaqua Animal Refuge members join me, and we are met by the charming Assistant Warden Elizabeth Keyes, who will be our guide for the day. Somehow she manages to put me at ease with her warm smile. We are here to see how specially chosen inmates rehabilitate unwanted dogs sent by Alaqua to give them another chance at life.
Some dogs enter the program overly aggressive, some are frightened and overly shy, some have been abused.
Deeper into the prison we enter into a large, air-conditioned room where chairs have been set up for us. The first sign I notice is one that states, “It’s a dog’s world – ADJUST.” It’s a colorful room full of bright signs from Auburn University’s Canine Detection Training Program, as well as Alaqua’s AKC Canine Good Citizen Program. Names of previous dog graduates are printed on the wall. A large mural painted across the wall states, “Until one has loved a dog, part of their soul remains unawakened.”
Bay Correctional is able to take only 12 Alaqua dogs at one time because of available outdoor space. Today, nine trainers sit in blue plastic chairs across the room from us, each one with the dog they have been given for this 10-week training program. The Canine Good Citizen test consists of 10 skills the dogs must have to meet AKC requirements. Some of these skills are accepting a friendly stranger, sitting politely for petting, heeding the sit and down command, coming when called, supervised separation and appearance. The coats of these beautifully groomed dogs glisten like sunshine.
Adele Leas begins the session and the room falls silent. The art of Jin Shin Jyutsu, taught by Adele to all these trainers, is quietly applied to each dog by their trainer. This is an Art that harmonizes the life energy by balancing body, mind and spirit through gentle hands-on application. It lessens the attitude of fear, anger or grief. This touch is a very powerful bonding tool between handler and dog.
I look directly across the room and I am mesmerized with the forehead to forehead complete calm shown between inmate trainer and dog. This dog, Sissy, a mixture of blue tick hound/sharpie, has completely given herself over to the trainer and looks up at him with adoring eyes and complete trust. Sissy was adopted out at one time, found to be used for chasing down wild boars and was readmitted by Alaqua. Though she has facial lacerations to show her past, she is now in this CGC to learn new skills in her hopes for a safe, quiet, permanent home.
Samantha Graves, Canine Program Coordinator, watches over the proceedings.
The room comes alive and bursts with energy as one by one the dogs go through their paces. Nancy Bown, of K9-5, is a certified trainer who supervises the training methods at Bay Correctional to ensure that all training is done correctly. Nancy is also the CGC evaluator. She carefully watches each dog and trainer go through the 10 steps and it is her job to evaluate whether the dogs show the necessary skills to pass. During the sit and stay command and the coming when called portion, most of us feel a lump in our throats and hope in our hearts for a good performance. One of the dogs takes several happy bounding leaps away from the call command but quickly recovers with encouragement from the trainer. We all have a big sigh of happy relief.
The small black pups, Patsy, Pierce and Pastor, all siblings, were untouchable ferals when they came to this program. I got the opportunity to sit with Patsy as part of the “accepting a friendly stranger” and I lost my heart in about three minutes flat. I must mention Roscoe, mostly German shepherd, who understands 40 commands including opening the refrigerator to bring the trainer a drink and getting a tissue after a sneeze. He is a future star and will stay here longer for advanced training.
After passing the CGC test, the dogs are returned to Alaqua for adoption. Check out Alaqua Animal Refuge’s website at www.alaquaanimalrefuge.org for photos of available dogs. A stunning 86 percent of dogs that come from this program are adopted. As one of the inmates/trainers Andy Rhodes said to me, “Some of us in here have done some bad things, but this is an opportunity for us to do something positive. Through this program, we learn control of emotions, responsibility and patience, patience, patience.”
The love, joy and pride seen in each trainer are phenomenal. They have these dogs 24-7 for 10 weeks. The dogs go to class with their trainer. They go with them when they have to perform duties like laundry or cleaning. When I talk with Rhodes he tells me, “The trainer’s day often begins at 4:30 with the first dog run and ends with lights out at 10. To qualify as trainers, inmates must make application for the canine program and be disciplinary free for six months.”
At Bay, there are 64 canine trainers and they all stay in one dormitory — two to a room with a total count of 29 dogs.
To end the day, we enjoyed a slideshow produced by the trainers. The appropriate title of one section was, “Men training dogs, dogs teaching men.”
Patience and hard work has created a positive win-win canine program. I give these dogs and trainers my applause and admiration for a job well done. I hope 100 percent of these graduates will find a happy, loving home.
Laura Hall is a longtime Destin resident. She writes about area gardens and other topics of interest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org