FORT MYERS, Fla. — On Tuesday, a group of dogs graduated from a program where they are trained by inmates.
The Cell Dog program, implemented by Captain Thomas Weaver, has been in place since 2004. The program started with six dogs and now more than 600 dogs have been trained.
These are abandoned, abused, surrendered dogs who have a second chance as they are paired with an inmate who's also getting a second chance. The inmates train these dogs who will be adopted by our community through Gulf Coast Humane Society.
Organizers say if these dogs didn’t go to the Gulf Coast Humane Society, they may have been put down.
The program is not only life-changing for the dogs but the inmates who get to learn skills and develop relationships with these dogs during the course of the 10-week program.
The dogs are with the inmates every single day to learn commands, potty training, and crate training. The inmates also write logs on how the dogs are doing through training so that the information can be passed along to the family who adopts the dog.
After the 10-week program, the dogs officially graduate and go to a family for adoption.
"While the dogs are going through their training, the dog handler fills out daily training reports which we save and give to the adopter, so they have a better understanding of the dog their getting," says Master Corporal Hawkins.
Master Corporal Hawkins oversees much of this daily training, "As far as the handlers, it gives them more of a sense of purpose to care for more than just themselves. They care for other people and other things - therefore cutting down the recidivism in the jail."
During Tuesday's graduation ceremony, each inmate went through the commands they taught each dog.
Law enforcement says they really see a change in the inmates' behavior and that gives them a purpose.
Ryan Shirk and Kaila Vanrooyen adopted a dog named Rocco, who graduated through the program on Tuesday.
"I think it's definitely something that, nationwide, should be implemented to all jail houses. That way, we can save more dogs. I think it's a great program that should really help out the inmates - teaching them a skill that they can use once they do get out and like I said, I just like supporting the program," Shirk and Vanrooyen said.
"I think they need to understand that it's not only the inmates preparing the dogs for adoption, but the dogs are also building up the character of the inmates as well so it's a win-win situation all around and they're much easier to adopt out because they already come with commands and basic manners," says Kaila.
Brian Wierima with Gulf Coast Humane Society explains, "Intense 24-hour training - so it's definitely a two-way street. The inmates learn so much, but I see a lot of these dogs on the first day they come to Gulf Coast Humane Society. Graduation day is totally different. The dogs are confident, they are well-mannered, and they know their training, so it makes a big difference."
Wierima shared that after the inmates finish their sentence, many have gone on to become dog trainers because of the program.
"You are strengthening yourselves and by doing so you are able to strengthen your fellow inmates. You're strengthening Lee County Sheriff's Office - the deputies that work with you."