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GCHS K9 trio in need of Forever Homes

By Staff | Nov 18, 2015

Winkie, with GCHS Kennel Supervisor Alfredo Rivera, is up for adoption. Photo provided by Gulf Coast Humane Society

The Second Chance Pals program run by the Gulf Coast Humane Society, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Corrections, is the epitome of a successful two-way street with both sides helping each other.

Each side of the equation is considered hard-luck cases, but it’s a relationship forged to help each other pick themselves back up with love, companionship and a sense of accountability.

In this case, it’s the inmates of the Department of Corrections (DOC) helping the dogs from GCHS prepare for a hopeful life at a forever home.

In return, the K9s provide a sense of worth and accomplishment to the inmates, while providing companionship and loyalty every dog can provide.

“While the dogs are here, they get the royal treatment,” said Florida Department of Corrections Officer Adela Davis, who runs the program at the DOC facility. “The inmates all absolutely love them. For those 10 to 12 weeks, they become a part of the inmates’ and guards’ lives.

“You see seven-foot, muscle-bound inmates crying at the (dogs’) graduations and I’ve shed a few tears myself.”

The new goal of the program’s is to not have the graduated dogs come back to the GCHS shelter, so they forget what they were trained for over that time at the DOC facility.

Instead, they will be put into foster care, or better yet, be pre-adopted to a home in which they can go to after graduation.

The first trio to go into this protocol is Caesar, Trixie and Winkie, while the call for their adoptions is urgent, said GCHS’ Director of Volunteer Services Kelly Legarreta.

“These three dogs will make a perfect companion and we will see a 100-percent success rate of adoption,” Legarreta said. “All the dogs which go through the program will get adopted, but our ultimate goal now is for them not to come back to the shelter. Officer Davis has generously provided an extra week for the three to stay at their facility, so we can find these three homes.”

The most huggable dog which stands out is Winkie, who is a special needs dog. Winkie has been with GCHS since May of 2015 and needs a special home with a constant companion. He is a 4.5 year old pitbull mix, who is blind.

“Winkie is a phenomenal dog,” Legarreta said. “He would make for a great therapy dog, since he needs constant companionship.”

Trixie is a three-year-old Plott hound mix and first came to GCHS in June of this year.

Caesar is the longest-term resident at GCHS when he was brought into the shelter on March 29, 2014. He is a four-year-old Shar-pei mix.

“I have no idea why Trixie and Caesar are still here, they are such wonderful dogs,” Legarreta said. “We want to evolve this program to where we make sure to push them to get adopted and not lose the benefits of what they were trained by the DOC inmates.”

The three dogs’ training will end Wednesday, Nov. 18, and will be then either be brought to foster homes or better yet, adopted by their forever parents.

But it’s the Second Chance Pals program which is providing extra opportunity for Trixie, Caesar and Winkie.

The chances the inmates provide the dogs by training them the basics of integrating into a home is vital. For many of the dogs who enter the program, it’s their big shot of being adopted after they graduate from it.

“We don’t put dogs in the program if they are highly-adoptable or ones which need 24-hour care,” Legarreta said. “We want ones which will benefit and be fine-tuned by training and shine a light on them if they are being overlooked at the shelter.”

On the other side of the equation, Davis asks inmates to volunteer to be trainers for the 10-12 weeks of the program. Inmates will submit their requests and Davis will look into their backgrounds, making sure there isn’t any animal neglect or abuse activity.

“We don’t have any inmates who are in here with violent or sex crimes,” Davis said. “We also get a little bit of every kind of inmate wanting to be a trainer, including many different nationalities and backgrounds. The dogs affect the entire institution and the population lights up when they see the dogs.”

The Second Chance Pal program was started in April of 2013. Since then, 73 dogs have gone through the program and 51 handlers have worked with them. The only three who haven’t been adopted are Trixie, Caesar and Winkie.

Legarreta and two other GCHS trainers visit the DOC two to three times a week to run a training class for the inmate handlers. From there, handlers will institute what they have learned with their assigned dog.

The dog is with the inmate 24/7, and even sleeps in a crate in the same cell as their handler. This provides not only basic training, but as well as companionship for both the inmate and the dog, which otherwise stays alone in a kennel at GCHS.

“The inmates teach the dogs manners, how not to jump on people when greeting them, how to choose a good word to stop the dog from constantly barking and break them out of bad habits, such as pulling on a leash and taking treats nicely,” Davis said. “They really teach the dog everything and anything they need to know how to do in a home environment.”

The benefits the inmates receive are just as important. First, they learn a trade of dog training and a job inside the DOC facility to keep them busy.

But most importantly, they get to feel the benefit of accomplishment when their student graduates and passes all the GCHS tests.

Davis mentioned one particular inmate who went through the Second Chance Pal program and how it affected him on the outside after his release.

“This inmate was from Miami and he told me that he was in here because he was weak when it came to drugs and he had a bad addiction,” Davis said. “This program really helped him out, he told me, “I didn’t want to mess this up.’

“K9s really help people come out of their shells.”

The inmate Davis was referring to recently posted on Facebook he was helping out in the shelters in Miami, thus carrying on what he learned from his time in Second Chance Pals.

The bond some inmates formed with their K9 students was so strong, their families ended up adopting the dog after graduation.

“We’ve had five dogs adopted by inmates’ families,” Davis added.

When graduation time comes and it’s time for the student and teacher to part, emotions run high.

“It’s always emotional to see the inmates hand over the dogs to their adoptive families,” Legarreta said. “The inmates have put so much time and passion into the dogs, they become a part of their family. Helping a dog having a second chance at life, too, mirrors their own situations. They are helping the dogs shine and learn life skills and that is exactly what is happening to them.”

To learn more or to schedule and appointment to meet one of the three dogs up for adoption, or to see the many other dogs and cats GCHS has up for adoption, visit their website at www.gulfcoasthumanesociety.org/ or call 239-332-0364.