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Second Chance Cell Dog Program is a two-way street of learning between trainer and K9 student

By Staff | Apr 21, 2016

(This is part one of a two-part series on the Gulf Coast Humane Society’s successful Second Chance Pal Cell Dog Program, ran in conjunction with the Florida Department of Corrections.)

When one needs a second or third chance in life, sometimes it’s better to learn from someone who has walked in similar shoes.

Or as regarding the K9 type of Gulf Coast Humane Society – paws.

As is the case with many dogs which are brought into the GCHS, obedience is lacking due to neglect, abuse or just a tough life the pooch has endured through its life. What results is unruly behavior which makes it tough for the dog to be adopted.

But several years ago, the GCHS paired up with the Florida Department of Corrections in Fort Myers and set up the Second Chance Pals Cell Dog Program, which places homeless shelter dogs in an obedience training program with carefully selected inmates.

Once in the program, the intensive dog training last from eight to 16 weeks, which has a 100 percent graduation and adopted rate once the session has ended.

“Failure is not an option for these dogs,” said FDC Officer Adela Davis, who runs the program from the inside of the Corrections facility in Fort Myers.

Since GCHS is a no-kill shelter, dogs who don’t get adopted can stay with the shelter for an undetermined amount of time. But those dogs that have gone through the Second Chance program have become highly adoptable and possess obedience skills such as sitting, recalling, heeling and staying. They are also obedient on the leash, a big plus when people are looking to adopt.

“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,” said former GCHS Director of Volunteer Services Kelly Legarreta, who still volunteers at the shelter and was one who helped start up the program. “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.”

So far, so good.

Seventy-eight dogs have gone through the program and all have been adopted and not brought back to the shelter, proving the obedience training is sticking.

The biggest success story has been that of Winkie, a blind pitbull mix, who, although looking intimidating, was a teddy bear of a dog.

Winkie went through the Second Chance Program and was trained by inmate Scott Helfand, who was a veteran of the program. Winkie was a pet project of Legarreta’s to get adopted and, after more than a year, he finally was last November.

“When I first saw Winkie, he was handicapped and suffering,” Helfand said. “But soon I realized how smart he was, despite his lack of sight, he made up for it with his sense and scent.”

Helfand used a lot of noises to train Winkie such as bells and a clicker. Winkie soon became the unofficial mascot of the FDC, as everyone from the guards to other inmates fell in love with the mass of furry generosity.

“He needed structure and a regular routine,” Helfand said. “Many were sad to see him go, but they all wish the best for him. He taught me a lot and Winkie was very helpful to me.”

And that’s where the dividends are paying off, since they are racking up twofold.

Not only are the inmates literally saving these dogs’ lives from being penned up all day, the dogs have reciprocated by giving a sense of accomplishment, companionship and learning to their trainers, who know firsthand how it feels to be in a cell.

The Class of February 2016 included four dogs from the GCHS. In mid-November of 2015, the dogs met their trainers and were transported to the FDC facility in Fort Myers not far away from the GCHS.

Copper was a 1-year old fox hound mix, while Jezebel was a 9-month old Catahoula mix who was full of energy. Jezebel’s trainer was Second Chance veteran trainer Zachary Debuono.

Gamit was a 2-year old pit bull mix and was paired with Kevin Ouellette, while Daisy, a 4-year-old Hound mix, went to first-time inmate trainer Cesar Bernal.

For Debuono and Jezebel, there was a big challenge, since the K9 was hyperactive and liked to chase her shadow.

“She is young and high energy,” Debuono said. “I have been running her around for like two straight hours and she still can go. But she is an awesome dog.”

Debuono was selected to be in the Second Chance Program over three years ago and it has been paid back ever since.

“You get a sense of accomplishment when the dogs get adopted,” Debuono said. “These dogs are distraught, but they help us more than we help them.”

For the Second Chance Program and how valuable it is, it would cost well over a $1,000 to train these dogs for how much they are getting trained inside the FDC. It’s all one-on-one training and basically 24-hour, seven-days-a-week training.

The dogs are with their trainers all day and night, and even stay in the inmates’ sleeping quarters. The inmates are totally responsible for their K9 students, including feeding, clean-up and bathing.

The inmates are screened for any background of animal cruelty before being granted to be in the Second Chance Program.

For Jezebel on that November morning, Debuono knew he was going to have his hands full.

“The first thing I need to do is bond with her,” Debuono said. “I can’t spoil her too much, but have her respect me. You can’t discipline them too much, because they don’t obey by fear.

“She is very high strung, you can see her lose her focus even by looking at her shadow.”

Kolecki volunteers two hours a week at the FDC facility, as does Legarreta. Both see the benefits for each the dog and the inmate. They also see the trainers improve leaps and bounds, along with their K9 students.

“It’s been a win-win situation for both,” Kolecki said. “The dogs get human interaction 24-7 and the (inmates) get that feeling of accomplishment and companionship.”

The daily routine for the inmates and the K9 students starts at 6 a.m. with the dogs’ first feeding. Then the inmates take the dogs out for potty break and kennel them back up in their sleeping areas for breakfast themselves.

Then the next few hours are for exercise and training.

“Each inmate is responsible for the dogs all day,” Officer Davis said. “They do all the bathing, responsible for giving the dogs their medications and keep up on all the paperwork. The dogs also sleep right with the inmates, usually in their kennels.”

Three inmates share one room as their sleeping quarters and all are paired up with their dogs, making it three dogs in one room. That, in turn, teaches the dogs tolerance of putting up with other dogs.

Bernal’s K9 student, Daisy, is also very hyperactive and doesn’t do well on the leash in the beginning.

“She doesn’t know her name and she can’t stay still,” Bernal said. “First thing I need to work on is her name recognition and that what I did the first three days with her. That has taught me patience, which I need. She needs to learn self control, too.”

All four of the dogs need to learn that, self control. All are hyperactive, which is a big red flag for potential forever homes. To control that, Kolecki said exercising the dogs is very important, because they shouldn’t be kept inside all day, building up that energy.

Bernal said the experience thus far has helped him rein in his emotions, because that’s what Daisy feeds off of.

“If you keep your calm, she will keep her calm, they can sense your emotions,” Bernal said. “Getting them in a routine is important, and keep repeating it.”

With up to three months of constant training, there is an obvious bond formed between the dogs and the inmates. By the time graduation comes and the dogs go home with their forever home owners, it gets very emotional, no matter how tough and big the inmates are.

“I’ve seen a seven-foot inmate break down and cry on graduation day,” Officer Davis said. “There’s a lot of tears on graation day, but they are all tears of joy.”

The opportunity for both the dogs to improve to ready themselves for adoption and in return the chance of inmates to lift their own self esteem, while also preparing for re-entry into society, the payoff is double.

“The dogs might be training in jail, but they have more freedom than they would in the shelter,” Kolecki said. “We don’t want them going back to the shelter and forgetting their training.”

The challenge has been set forward for these four inmates and these four wild and disobedient dog. Responsibility is heaped on each of the inmates’ shoulders, something they have not felt for in a long time.

The clock is ticking towards graduation and the dogs learning how to behave in front of potential owners.

In the next and final installment, see if these four dogs will make it through the intensive training program and check out if that 100-percent adoption rate will stand. Also see what kind of emotions the inmates are feeling after a nearly 12-week training period and the potential of losing their furry friend as they prepare to become a pet, instead of a stray.