Eight dogs who were once likely to be euthanized graduated from a canine training camp Wednesday, and their trainers happen to be Jacksonville prisoners.
The program, Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills, or TAILS, came to the Northside’s Montgomery Correctional Center just over three years ago, graduating a total of 93 dogs. It’s one of five prisons in North Florida and South Georgia that offer the program.
Thirty-year-old inmate Chris Lance trained a stocky, tan dog named Waylon for over two months. Waylon showed up eating everything in sight and not house broken, Lance said, but today he can do tricks like high fiving with both paws while Lance chants, “Orange! Blue! Go Gators!”
At his graduation, Waylon earned a “PhD” for being one of the class’s three most well behaved. Dogs can get a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate. TAILS Executive Director Jen Dean said the progress is always impressive, considering she takes only dogs with major issues.
“We take the dogs that jump on people, that chew things, that aren’t potty-trained,” she said. “Generally it’s the big dogs because that’s what stays in the shelters longer than anything else.”
Waylon went home with a family Wednesday after sleeping beside Lance’s bunk every night. He’s serving the tail end of a seven-month sentence.
“It definitely reinforced my patience, especially with Waylon,” he said. “(It) keeps your mind off of things.”
And the privilege of living in the dog dorm helps keep down conflict between inmates, he said.
“When we get out, we don’t want to come back in here for any reason,” Lance said.
Phase I of a University of North Florida study, released May, determined the program has the potential to reduce the number of released inmates who wind up back behind bars.
Lance said when he gets out in two months he wants to become a certified dog trainer.
The TAILS program, also known as As New Leash on Life, is completely funded through Dean’s nonprofit, Pit Sisters. She said it costs about $425 per dog, and she depends on sponsorships and donations. Pit Sisters also handles the adoptions at the end of the training.
As of Wednesday’s graduation, all but one dog had a home.