PENNEY FARMS – Local dogs are finding themselves behind bars, as part of a new program mutually benefiting Florida prison inmates and shelter dogs.

Clay County Animal Care and Control recently teamed up with a Jacksonville Beach-based animal welfare organization, Pit Sisters, in an effort to change the lives of inmates in Florida correctional facilities. Five Clay County canines will go to prisons as of Pit Sisters’ program Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills, or TAILS.

“We jumped onto this opportunity because it’s a great thing for these shelter dogs to not only be able to help themselves, but the people in the prison system too,” said Christina Sutherin, CCACC director. “We’re excited that this is our first selection of dogs, the staff is excited because it gives us something else to focus on, and we are hoping to add more correctional facilities in the future.”

The aim of the program is to pair five shelter dogs with inmates in order for the inmates to train, socialize and care for the dogs, with the overall goal of finding a forever home for the re-trained dogs. This is the first time Clay County has participated with the program.

The dogs that are housed at the shelter near Penney Farms are often those without formal training, some of them have been neglected and some lack interaction with humans. Jennifer Deane, TAILS’ director and president of Pit Sisters, put the dogs through extensive tests before transferring them to TAILS in a March 14 sendoff.

Deane said the animals they look for are ones that can tolerate being handled, don’t show aggression and interact well with other dogs. The dogs are put through a series of tests that included a one on one evaluation where Deane sees how the dogs handle food, distractions and general commands. The dogs are also spayed, neutered and heart worm free.

The dogs who passed the full-blown evaluation were sent to the Lawtey Correctional Institution in Bradford County. At the facility, the dogs will be paired with inmates who will have the opportunity to train the dogs for eight weeks. Upon the successful completion of the TAILS program, the dogs will graduate and be ready for adoption.

“The dogs receive training to help them succeed in everyday life and the prisoners discover a new purpose in life and are less likely to return back to the prison system,” Sutherin said.

The inmates who participate in the program must be non-violent, not have any convictions for animal cruelty or domestic violence and must have a record of good behavior in their facility. The program is so popular among inmates, that many are placed on waiting lists before they can participate with TAILS.

The inmates, like most pet owners, grow attached and devoted to their fury best friends.

“They treat them like they are their own dogs,” Dean said. “They really care and are sad to see them go.”

The advocacy group, Friends of Clay County Animals, which serves as the volunteer arm of CCACC, was on hand Tuesday for the TAILS selection event. The organization is in full support of what Pit Sisters is doing for the dogs.

“They will get some consistency, and when they come out, people will know what kind of dog they’re adopting,” said Andrea Cassman, founder of FOCCA.

When the dogs graduate from the prison program, so do the inmates who have a chance to learn the valuable skills which the TAILS program is built upon.

“We had one inmate that left prison and we offered him a scholarship to become a dog trainer, and he’s now studying to become one,” Deane said. “He’s a completely different guy than he was when he went into prison, and you can see it firsthand.”

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