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Teachers learn from students in Cell Pals program

By Staff | Mar 30, 2016

Zachary Debuono gives his K9 student, Jezebel, a scratch during training. BRIAN WIERIMA

(The Second Chance Cell Dogs Program is nearing its end, with graduation looming one week away during the second meeting between writer Brian Wierima and the inmate trainers inside the Florida Department of Corrections. The dogs are noticeably calmer, while their demeanor much more happier and trusting. Although the physical relationship between K9 student and teacher will end within a week, the lasting accomplishments will last a long time.

This is the second and final installment of the Second Chance Program, which is run by the Gulf Coast Humane Society, in conjunction with the FDC.)

“They’ve come a long ways.”

Those words were spoken by Florida Department of Corrections Officer Adela Davis as the Second Chance Cell Dog Program graduation date was nearing Feb. 18.

But Officer Davis’ words were not said with just the students in mind.

Copper sits obediently after a command from his inmate trainer Ricco Cintron. Copper was a hyperactive dog before he entered the Second Chance Cell Dog program, run by the Gulf Coast Humane Society, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Corrections in Fort Myers. BRIAN WIERIMA

Ultimately, what the program offers is a journey of progression and accomplishment felt by each the teacher and the student, or in this case, the inmate trainers and the K9 students.

Graduation date was approaching and there was still some work to be done with the previously unruly and disobedient dogs sent to the FDC from Gulf Coast Humane Society through the Second Chance program.

But there was a markedly noticeable change in the K9s, who entered the guarded prison as some of Gulf Coast Humane Society’s most unadoptable dogs.

Jezebel, a nine-month-old Catahoula mix, laid down at the feet of her inmate trainer, Zachary Debuono, after 11 weeks of training and living inside the prison every day, all day and night.

During the first week of the program, Jezebel had zero focus, to the extent that her shadow would disrupt her behavior.

Gambit gives a lick of appreciation to Kevin Ouellette, who trained him for nearly 12 weeks inside the Florida Department of Corrections in Fort Myers. BRIAN WIERIMA

“Her entire problem was her focus,” Debuono said. “She paid no attention to her owner.”

But after intense, 24-7 training, Jezebel has learned how to sit on command, walk on a leash obediently and listen to orders.

In other words, her life changed immensely with the work she was able to do with Debuono. So much in fact, Jezebel would be adopted and taken home right after the graduation ceremony Feb. 18, at the FDC.

It was a chore to break Jezebel of her ADHD ways, though.

“I had to give her a job and find ways to release all that energy,” Debuono said. “I had to make everything fun for her. It took time. Then I worked on a lot of consistency and when the sun came out in the mornings, I had to give her all of my attention.”

Cesar Bernal, an inmate trainer in the Second Chance Cell Dog Program, successfully was able to train Daisy, who was eventually adopted after her graduation. BRIAN WIERIMA

Although Gambit, a two-year old Pit Bull mix, didn’t have any forever parents lined up after graduation, he had someone waiting for him if no one would step up and claim him as their pet.

His inmate trainer, Kevin Ouellette, not only was able to train Gambit as a reliable and obedient dog, the two formed a strong bond which paid dividends both ways.

Ouellette hopes Gambit does get adopted in a good home. But if he is still waiting for a forever home, Ouellette hopes to be that owner to Gambit.

“We just got closer and closer and he is a very loving dog,” Ouellette said. “He loves cuddling and he doesn’t take his eyes off me. When I first got him, Gambit was very high energy, but now he is calm, sits well and listens.”

But that bond created was like no other for Ouellette, who also relied on Gambit to get him through some tough times.

Jezebel was adopted and taken home right after the graduation ceremony. The K9 was adopted by Brandi and John Bliss. BRIAN WIERIMA

“He taught me a lot,” Ouellette said. “He helped me more than I helped him. I was stressed out when I first got him. But he calmed me down and he helped me out of my depression. I’ve had dogs before, but I have never felt what I do for Gambit.”

Ouellette, who had a release date in the next coming weeks, said if Gambit is still available, he hopes to adopt him.

“It will hurt to see him leave, but it would be a miracle if I get to adopt him,” Ouellette added.

For inmate Cesar Bernal, much like Ouellette’s experience with Gambit, Daisy had a profound influence on him.

“She couldn’t sit still when she first came here,” Bernal said. “The first thing I had to do was teach her her name. That’s all we did the first three days, bonding and name recognition.”

In the mornings, Bernal said exercising Daisy was important, which was done to burn up her energy.

With Daisy’s progression being fast, she was adopted during her time with Bernal. She would stay on through the full 12 weeks of training, though, and went home with Nan and Pat Currie of Naples after graduation.

“It feels good she is going to a good home and I also learned patience,” Bernal said. “I feel I helped save her life.”

Copper also suffered from high anxiety and lack of focus. But with inmate trainer Ricco Cintron, the K9 learned respect and how to follow commands.

“Copper is an alpha dog, so I had to show him who was boss,” Cintron said. “He is a very high-energy dog, so he would do well outside, where he could use up his energy. But once he gets focused, he is a great dog and highly motivated to please.”

Cintron developed a routine for Copper, which is the best way to train a dog.

“It’s all about consistency and repetition,” Cintron said. “I had to ignore him when he was in his kennel and he just kept barking. But I would reward him when he was calm and quiet. But he still has lots of energy and he can run laps and fetch balls all day.”

Graduation day always brings tears, which are mixed with joy and sadness.

The Bliss couple, who adopted Jezebel, said they feel fortunate having a dog who has undergone intense training.

“We have a puppy of our own and the meeting went very well (with Jezebel),” Brandi Bliss said. “I think it’s amazing these guys have the opportunity to work with the dogs. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the dogs get something and they get something out of it.”

For the Curries, who adopted Daisy, the match was good with them and their other furry pal.

“We thought this program was a great thing,” said Nan Currie. “We have a golden retriever the same age, and the meeting between him and Daisy went well, so we were able to adopt her.”

As the K9 students were ready to leave the freedom of the prison they were trained in to help them outside of the fence of the FDC, the inmates they are leaving behind are a bit better, as well.

“This program is awesome,” Debuono said. “This program has helped me a lot. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. The program humanizes us and the guards treat us a little different for doing it.

“I also get to go back and tell my family about it and that is great. We learn how to be patient, be consistent and to be calm. The dogs pick up on that and they learn, as well.”

The 100-percent success rate looks to stay intact for the Second Chance Cell Dogs Program, thanks to the inspirational work done by each the teacher and the student.

The rewards of the Gulf Coast Humane Society’s and the FDC’s initiative will be both short term, as well as long term.

After another Second Chance graduation is in the books, another batch of needy dogs enter the program a week later. The training starts all over again and another journey between dog and inmate begins.