by Whitney Crouch
“Rescued,” Carlton H. Colwell Probation Detention Center’s new rehabilitation program, has certainly been living up to its motto, “Saving detainees and dogs, one life at a time.” Designed to impart job skills to detainees and rescue dogs from animal shelters, the Blairsville-based initiative is the Georgia Department of Corrections’ first dog rescue program.
Spirits were high during Rescued’s inaugural graduation ceremony and ribbon cutting celebration Wednesday, Aug. 29, as six detainees and four dogs — including two rescued from the Gilmer County Animal Shelter —were recognized for their successful completion of the eight-week program.
Addressing the gathered crowd of detainees’ families, correction officers and other program supporters, Jan Eaton, of Tri-State Pet Rescue, observed, “It’s just an all-around win. There is no downside — the detainees have obviously gained skills … (and) we pull animals out from under the euthanization needle … it’s a program we cannot say enough about.”
While the dogs were a bit nervous about the large crowd and unfamiliar situation, they calmly walked into the room and sat by their handlers throughout the program. It was amazing to see the difference that had been wrought in their demeanors over the course of eight short weeks.
The greatest change could be seen in Dolly, a Treeing Walker Coonhound who originally left the Gilmer County Animal Shelter with the name Sally. She spent her first days at Colwell cowering in her handler’s lap with her tail tucked between her legs.
It took awhile for her to warm up to people, but by the time of the graduation service, she was almost unrecognizable in her enthusiasm to greet those around her. She had blossomed into a social butterfly and spent her time after the ceremony working the crowd, earning treats, getting her head scratched and shaking hands with almost everyone in the room.
How it works
Rescued began earlier this year with six detainees — four primary handlers and two assistants. In order to participate in the program, they each had to go through a thorough background check and interview process and submit an essay. To remain in the program, they had to demonstrate exceptionally good behavior and positive strides.
The dogs arrived at the facility June 28. As Colwell Superintendent Diane Hassett recalled, by the end of that first day, each of the canines had new names — Dolly, Gunner, Cooper and Bentley — and “the lives of these detainees and dogs were forever changed.”
Beginning July 2, under the direction of volunteers Lisa and Brad Wagner, of Cold Nose College in Murphy, N.C., the detainees started learning how to conduct good manners training sessions for the eager canines.
“It’s an honor to be a part of this program. We have had motivated, committed handlers. We haven’t had any issues,” shared Lisa Wagner.
The detainees also learned pet grooming from Carol Shannon, of Two Paws Up Mobile Pet Salon. In order to give the handlers additional grooming practice, Eaton brought a vanload of dogs to Colwell each Friday to receive baths and pampering.
In recognition of their hard work and completion of the program, the detainees received on-the-job training certificates in dog grooming from Middle Georgia Technical College. They also learned basic computer skills and resume building from a North Georgia Technical College representative and completed a money management course through United Community Bank, which included information about starting a business.
The hope is for the training provided through the Rescued program to provide the detainees with renewed confidence and a new skill set for when they re-enter society. Encouraging results are already being seen as one of the detainees already has a job lined up at a dog boarding facility for when he is released.
“These guys have taken a step forward and made an investment in their future … they are pioneers,” observed Darrel Pauldo, of the Georgia Department of Corrections Risk Reductions Services.
Speaking to the handlers, Hassett echoed these sentiments, stating “You have been given an opportunity to make changes in your life and the tools to do so … you are all better because of each other.”
Agreeing with this assessment, detainee Sean Rice described Rescued as “one of greatest ideas that’s ever been brought to life” and explained that the program was having a positive impact. He recalled that he was sad to leave his family and own dogs upon his incarceration but shared that learning about the new canine program provided him with hope for the future.
“Though I made a mistake to get here, I’m thankful God placed me here at a time when I could better myself,” he stated, adding that he and his fellow detainees were glad to be a part of the program because they “knew our time here was going to be worth something.”
Indeed, in addition to gaining practical on-the-job skills, the detainees exercised important character traits, including respect, self-control, discipline and integrity, during the course of the program.
“Most of us plan to pay it forward,” Rice stated, explaining his desire to show his appreciation for Rescued by volunteering with an animal rescue organization after his release.
“What strikes me the most is the passion everyone has for this program,” remarked Brian Owens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, during the graduation ceremony. “There are no losers in this program.”
He also expressed his appreciation for the spirit of volunteerism surrounding Rescued, which is completely funded and operated by public donations and utilizes no taxpayer money. As he told the Times-Courier, in today’s difficult economic climate, which government resources are “stretched thin,” and this initiative would not be possible without local community involvement and support.
“Thank you for believing in us,” Rice concluded, as he expressed his appreciation to those who helped make the opportunity possible. “Rescued is such a groundbreaking program. I’m honored to be among the first six (detainees) involved … I pray you see how great Rescued is and expand it.”
His prayers were shortly answered and before the end of the day, Hassett received permission to submit a proposal for doubling the size of Rescued at Colwell.
Furthermore, Owens told the Times-Courier he has given permission to start a similar dog rescue program at the 1,700-bed Arrendale State Prison facility in Habersham County.
The graduation ceremony concluded with a good manners demonstration by the handlers and their dogs. After watching this impressive display, Gilmer County Animal Shelter director Natalie Wagner stated that she felt “overwhelmed, joyful. It’s a good feeling to know we helped these dogs and detainees.”
Hassett and several of the detainees shared that the graduation of the first canine class marked a “bittersweet” day because Dolly, Gunner, Cooper and Bentley would be moving to foster homes where they will await the opportunity to move to their forever homes.
The participants were also excited, however, because last Friday, the process of changing lives began again as four new dogs arrived at the Blairsville facility, the two alternate handlers became primaries and four new detainees entered the program.