Puppy love: Inmates learn patience, self esteem through four-legged friends

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 Aimee, a golden retriever, looks for a treat from her trainer, inmate Melissa Santoro, during Collier County Jail Second Chance Cell Dog Program Graduation at the Collier County Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. The program, in partnership with Humane Society Naples and Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance, had the inmates paired with a dog for five weeks to train the canines so they could be adopted out to new homes.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Naples Daily News

Greg Kahn/Staff Aimee, a golden retriever, looks for a treat from her trainer, inmate Melissa Santoro, during Collier County Jail Second Chance Cell Dog Program Graduation at the Collier County Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. The program, in partnership with Humane Society Naples and Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance, had the inmates paired with a dog for five weeks to train the canines so they could be adopted out to new homes.

Greg Kahn/Staff
Inmate Erin Manhardt, left, gets her dog, Dexter, a golden retriever, to shake in an obedience demonstration during Collier County Jail Second Chance Cell Dog Program Graduation at the Collier County Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center on Thursday. The program, in partnership with Humane Society Naples and Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance, had the inmates paired with a dog for five weeks to train the canines so they could be adopted out to new homes.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Naples Daily News

Greg Kahn/Staff Inmate Erin Manhardt, left, gets her dog, Dexter, a golden retriever, to shake in an obedience demonstration during Collier County Jail Second Chance Cell Dog Program Graduation at the Collier County Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center on Thursday. The program, in partnership with Humane Society Naples and Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance, had the inmates paired with a dog for five weeks to train the canines so they could be adopted out to new homes.

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 Inmates Jennifer Lehman, left, and Erin Manhardt, right, embrace after watching a short video documenting their experience training dogs during Collier County Jail Second Chance Cell Dog Program Graduation at the Collier County Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. The program, in partnership with Humane Society Naples and Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance, had the inmates paired with a dog for five weeks to train the canines so they could be adopted out to new homes.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Naples Daily News

Greg Kahn/Staff Inmates Jennifer Lehman, left, and Erin Manhardt, right, embrace after watching a short video documenting their experience training dogs during Collier County Jail Second Chance Cell Dog Program Graduation at the Collier County Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. The program, in partnership with Humane Society Naples and Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance, had the inmates paired with a dog for five weeks to train the canines so they could be adopted out to new homes.

Maggie, Chance, Aimee and Dexter learned a few life lessons behind bars in Collier County over the past two months.

On Thursday, they showed them off to the sheriff.

They were the first pound pups to graduate from the Second Chance Cell Dog program, a pilot initiative at the Naples Jail Center that placed shelter dogs with female inmates who taught them basic commands.

"Who knows when if ever we could have found the healing we have through this program," said Erin Manhardt, 45, who along with Peggy Skogland trained Dexter, a vocal golden retriever puppy.

Four of the inmates spoke at the graduation ceremony before demonstrating for Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk, family members and jail staff what they taught the dogs.

Patience, self esteem, leadership, and better parenting skills all came out of the program, they said.

"Our selfish acts are what brought us to jail," said Jennifer Lehman, 28, an inmate in charge of a boxer puppy. "Loving Maggie made us completely unselfish."

Inmates had to apply to be in the program, which excluded anyone with a record of violent offenses. The women who participated were all serving time for drug, DUI, or theft-related convictions.

The three golden retriever puppies and a boxer from the Humane Society of Naples lived with their trainers at the jail for eight weeks, learning basic commands in the hopes that they would be more adoptable if they behaved well.

The dogs went to their new adopted homes after the graduation knowing how to sit, stay, lay down, and hold up a paw.

They fidgeted and sometimes barked during the ceremony, held at the Sheriff's Office Professional Development Center in Naples. But ultimately they did what their inmate-trainers commanded, with treats in hand.

Two of the retrievers were rescued from Arthur Perkins, a Golden Gate Estates man who surrendered about 50 dogs in July amid allegations of subpar breeding conditions.

For the Sheriff's Office, the training initiative in collaboration with the Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance makes the distress of incarceration more bearable for staff and inmates.

"It's creating a very positive atmosphere in one that is not so positive," Rambosk said.

Corrections officers felt the difference too, he added. Puppies in the jail yard made everyone happy.

A second class will begin at the jail in early 2012. Michael Simonik, head of the Humane Society of Naples — which funded the program — said he expects it to expand.

After living for eight weeks together, several inmates cried at the ceremony, which would be their last moments with the dogs. The experience was worth the heartbreak at the end, they said.

"(Maggie's) confidence," Lehman told the audience, "has taught us to walk with our heads held a little higher."

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