They both get locked up by different means, but by virtue of coming together in the most unlikely of places, these inmates and canines relate to each other in ways that cross otherwise uncharted bounds, and as a result, both stand a much greater chance of benefiting in life.
In this unprecedented human-canine opportunity, the officials at the Collier County Jail center, while upholding their duty and guard, have recently followed suit with other jails and prisons across the country by implementing a program recognized nationwide for its far reaching utility.
Called the “Second Chance Cell Dog Program,” this pilot currently offered to qualified Collier County female inmates, said Collier County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Beth Richards during a briefing Thursday at the jail, “…will not only benefit the puppies. We are planting seeds for individual growth with these girls.” In a previous statement, Richards also said the puppies had a therapeutic effect at the jail, lifting spirits of both the deputies and the inmates.
Sarah Winters and Jennifer Lehman walk in, wearing baggy striped uniforms that remind them daily that they are different; they are suffering punishment by incarceration, serving jail sentences. However, right now, they do not look unhappy or depressed; they look focused, attentive, proud, a fact very likely attributed to Winters’ assigned dog, Chance, and Lehman’s pup, a Boxer named Maggie. The ladies are benefitting from this relatively new vehicle for their rehabilitation back into society, a bridge extended to them as interim dog trainers through the Second Chance program, all while doing their time.
For the next 8 to 16 weeks, the two inmates, along with six other inmates and two other dogs, will be caring for the dogs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the ladies receiving professional guidance for training the dogs in the basics of good pet behavior, and giving and receiving so much more.
During the short symposium held at the jail, Michael Simonik, executive director for the Humane Society Naples, said, “The program is a win-win-win-win. It benefits everyone. The inmates, the dogs, the shelter, and the future owners of a well-trained dog.”
The innovative cost-effective program pairs carefully screened Collier County jail inmates convicted of non-violent offenses with less than one year to serve with displaced canines from the Naples Humane Society for the training. While the program insures better adoptability and forever homes for the dogs, studies show that the experience goes well beyond the mere commands of “sit, heel, come and stay.”
“These women are learning so much,” said Jeannie Bates of the Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance. “They learn communication skills, leadership, sensitivity, integrity and job skills they can take with them after release.”
In addition to Bates, the hands-on training is facilitated by professional dog trainers employed at the Alliance, including two former Gadsden Correctional inmates who experienced the same opportunity while incarcerated, and are now giving back by volunteering their time, through the Alliance, to come into the jail to administer their expertise and experience.
Life for humans behind bars can be cold, derisive, unloving. The same for canines at a shelter, where lack of resources to engage such training can mean many months or even years of displacement for some dogs.
“A lot of people adopt a cute 6-week-old puppy,” said Simonik, “and then 6 months later return it to us, an unruly dog. Now, with this intensive training, the dogs are better trained, they obey many commands, and are leash trained and housebroken, so they can find permanent homes.”
With less than two weeks into the training, the puppies in fact appear well behaved, and happy, and the beginnings of a special bond unfolding graces the camera flash, which neither the dogs nor the inmates even notice.
In a telephone interview, Marc Bekoff, former emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and teacher for the past decade of animal behavior at the Boulder County Jail in Colorado, “Many prisoners find it easier to connect with animals than with people. They trust and empathize with animals in a way they don’t with people.” In an article he wrote for Psychology Today, inmates agreed, and one prisoner said that what he learned was, “What I do counts. I now have a vision for the future.”
Once the dogs complete the training, they will receive certificates of accomplishment, then be returned to the Humane Society, which will place information about the dogs on its website, and people can fill out applications to adopt these, or other special four-legged friends that need a good home. Dogs that show exceptional abilities will be tested for the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Program and subsequent CGC certification.
The jail will track the benefits of the program, and may seek to enlarge it, possibly to the male population, and sometime in the future, more advanced canine training.
“We hope this program will not only provide a second chance for these shelter dogs, but will also allow the inmates to experience a feeling of giving back something positive to the community and gain a sense of responsibility and satisfaction by teaching and taking care of the animals,” Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said via a statement from the Sheriff’s Office.
While it seems that images of the inside of the jail could never before elicit emotions of such warmth, compassion, merit, even unconditional love, here in Collier County, that has just decidedly changed.