Man's best friend appears to be bringing hope to a place where it seems lost sometimes. As it turns out the dogs are taking something away from the experience too: New families.
On Friday the first class of obedience-trained greyhounds graduated from lessons at the Hardee County Correctional Institution, where inmates have trained them for the last 8 to 10 weeks.
"We call the inmates trainers; they're professionals to us right now," said Joanne Wuelfing, of the Greyhound Advancement Center. "We see them as people who have something very worthwhile to contribute to our program."
A trainer came into the prison and taught selected inmates how to work with the dogs. Wuelfing and her husband Ken, who coordinated the new program, saw a change in what was happening on both ends of the leash.
"The inmates - as a whole didn't like to show a lot of emotion at the beginning but the dogs made them do it," Ken said. "They had to in order to get a response. Once they did - they started connecting with the dogs and the rest of it's easy."
All of the dogs once raced around tracks in Florida: Some in the Tampa Bay area, some in Sarasota; the others on the east coast. Families have adopted all but one of the seven that graduated this week. Inmates will get a new class of 9 soon.
"I've noticed the behaviors," said Warden David Lawrence. "We've had some very heartfelt letters inmates have written concerning how it changed the way they view their incarceration and their life."
The prison in Hardee County is a level 6 facility, one level away from maximum security. A lot of the men here are serving life sentences. Others will eventually get out. Either way, the dogs seem to be a small ray of hope for the inmate.
"Some have done 20, 30 years or more and they're able to show love back to something in a manner that they've not been able to in a long time," Lawrence said. "I understand [dogs] have the ability to impact the folks around them and to create an environment where maybe the aggressive behavior that might normally be associated with prison isn't present because of the canines."
He hopes this, paired with other new skills, helps inmates who get out of prison stay out.
"Our recidivism rate back in 2005 and 2006 was at 33 percent. Now it's down to 27.6 percent," Lawrence said. "The programs we're adding are apparently working."
Part of it seems to be about building worth again.
"A lot of inmates do come to prison with a lack of self-esteem, a lack of confidence in their abilities because they've been told ... they don't have self value; they're going to prison," Lawrence said. To have the dog and to have a goal set ... And to have someone show confidence in your ability to reach the goal ... has a very positive impact."
Joanne Wuelfing said the dogs graduating here will be good candidates for therapy dogs and could eventually provide services for patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example. Local adoption groups sponsor each greyhound, which means paying for the food during training.
"Even the most hardened of criminals when you see them get down on all fours and what's more when you see the dogs responding and reacting - it's just amazing to see that bond," she said.
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