Three shelter dogs and three northeast Florida jail inmates have graduated from a training program aimed at making the dogs ready for adoption and easing the inmates' transition out of jail.
The program is sponsored by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and First Coast No More Homeless Pets. The inmates at Jacksonville's Montgomery Correction Center spent 24 hours a day with the dogs for eight weeks.
The goal for the dogs was to make them more adoptable, through socialization and behavioral training, and ease overcrowding at Jacksonville Animal and Protective Services. The goal for the inmates serving short-term county sentences was to ease their transition back into the community by learning patience and coping skills and by giving them responsibility and accountability
The director of the sheriff's department of corrections tells The Florida Times-Union that the dogs reduced stress for both inmates and officers.
"Dogs open everybody up," said Tara Wildes. "This is bringing about positive change ... If you're going to change, you have to be open."
After temperament evaluations, each dog was matched with an inmate, with shy dogs put with outgoing inmates and enthusiastic dogs going to quiet inmates.
The inmates taught the dogs to follow commands such as properly walking on a leash. The dogs stayed with the inmates at all times, sleeping in kennels beside their beds.
"It changed my whole outlook on life," said James Mitz, who is serving a year for battery. "I learned as much or more as the dogs. This is one thing I've done that I will never regret."
After Thursday's graduation ceremony, two of the dogs were adopted by correction center staff and the third has been taken in by another rescue group.
More dogs and inmates start the training next week.