Jailhouse Dogs

Warden Larry Langdon, left, stands with, from left, trainer Erika Tompkins, trainer Nicole Helms, Diva, Supervisor Jackie Barnes, trainer Maritza Myers, trainer Tara Wallace and Gracie at the Volusia County Jail.

The Volusia County Jail begun a Jailhouse Dog program Nov. 4, similar to the Prison Pups N Pals program at Tomoka Correctional Facility, where dogs in need of training are paired up with inmates who teach them basic dog obedience skills such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’

Halifax Humane Society provides the dogs for both programs.

Unlike the PPNP program, the trainer inmates at the jail are all female and are short-term inmates. The initial pilot phase includes two dogs with hopes of expanding the count over time. The dogs are trained for eight hours daily for seven weeks.

The program has been in the planning stages for over a year. Miguel Abi-hassan, society CEO, Lt. Mark Kastner and Warden Larry Langdon were instrumental in getting the program implemented. Supervisor II Jackie Barnes is the program supervisor at the jail. A behavioral staff member from the society visits the jail three times each week to assist the inmate trainers.

“I used to work with animals in Pasco County,” Ms. Barnes said. “I was an animal control officer and I was also an animal tech, so it’s just getting back to the roots that I love animals and I love helping people and it puts those two jobs together for me. It’s awesome.”

She said the first week was getting the two dogs (Gracie and Diva) accustomed to a new environment and name recognition. Gracie is an eight-year-old shepherd mix and Diva is a black lab-mix puppy.

“There is a goal for the canines and a goal for the handlers as well,” Ms. Barnes said. “The goal for the canines is . . . to be good, sociable dogs, so you can take them into town and they are not going to jump all over you kind of dogs. It gives them their second chance in getting adopted into a new family. Somebody would rather take home a well-trained dog first.

“As for the handlers it’s about re-entry,” she said. “They have their own bad past and now they are getting their skill sets, they are going to get jobs after this. It’s an animal career program.”

Warden Langdon said, “We have criteria set by our case management staff. They have to meet that criteria before they are picked for this. We’ve been working on this project probably for about a year and a half to get it off and running like it is now. This is the first rung of the ladder. We hope to step up the amount of dogs that are coming in, which, in turn, steps up with the amount of inmates that are going to be handlers. Then there’s also opportunities to do PTSD dogs and then maybe comfort dogs to go into nursing homes or even maybe for our own mental health inmates. So that’s our hope, vision.”

Tara Wallace, one of Gracie’s trainers, said, “I think it’s great. (Gracie) was very sad, very withdrawn. She’s come out of her shell, she’s lost weight. She plays with toys again. She plays outside, rolls around, things she just stopped doing. I’ve always owned pets. It’s like a form of therapy for me. It’s kind of like a service dog. She’s calmed me down a lot. I can’t wait to get home to my son (in January). She gets me to where I need to be until I get there.”

Maritza Myers, Gracie’s other trainer, said, “I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. For me it’s teaching me a lot of patience.”

Erika Tompkins, who trains Diva, said, “It’s my own personal therapy dog, kind of. I’m learning a lot about animal behavior, especially dog behavior. It’s really cool to see how quickly she picks up on it. I’m really looking forward to checking out the shelters and stuff when I leave here in hopes of working with more animals like Diva. It’s a great opportunity. It’s a privilege to work with these dogs.”

Nicole Helms, who also trains Diva, said, “I think the program is wonderful, not only for the animals but for the inmates, but for the animals especially because they’re getting a second chance. I love that we’re getting a second chance too. It’s very therapeutic. It’s going to help me a lot in life I think.”

All inmate trainers and canine participants will have certificates once the program finishes, with the human certificates showing animal care handling skills.

Each program period will conclude with a graduation ceremony. About two weeks after the ceremony, two new dogs will start their training for another seven-week program.

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