FORSYTH, Ga. — New additions to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office include Axel, Cletus, Darla and Roxy — all part of a new program Pups with a Purpose.
The four-legged friends came on board in August and have made big changes to their own lives as well as those of their trainers.
The dogs are a variety of breeds — Axel is a pit bull mix, Cletus, a Shepard mix, Darla is a Dachshund mix and Roxy is another pit bull mix. All came from the Forsyth County Animal Shelter.
Partnered with Forsyth Jail inmates, the canines are being trained and will be made available to the public for adoption through the animal shelter.
Carefully selected, non-violent inmates are chosen for the program and are trained to work with the animals. The trainers and dogs stick to a strict schedule during which the canines learn basic obedience and the inmate learns patience, compassion and the valuable skill of dog training.
Professional dog trainer Scot Rucker of Rucker Dog Training has assisted in getting the program off the ground.
The canines and their trainers live in in their own cell block within the jail where they work to prepare for a fresh start from what brought them into the jail.
The pilot program has been active for a little over two months, and program supervisor Lt. Thomas Moore has seen incredible progress from all of the participants. The dogs have become happier and more obedient, quickly learning new commands and becoming housebroken, Moore said.
Trainers have changed, too.
Moore said inmates are showing a readiness to handle the responsibility of working with an animal six days a week.
“It was tough,” Moore said. “The first pack of dogs came to us without training.”
To participate in the program, potential participants are stringently vetted. They must apply, undergo a thorough screening which includes review of their offense, jail behavior and medical condition to ensure that their behavior, temperament and history is ideal for animal training and companionship, Forsyth County Deputy Tiffani Foster said.
“Qualified inmates get to work in the program one to two months,” Foster said.
Rucker has volunteered to help train the inmates and dogs on a weekly basis.
Rucker trains with the jailers, so the jailers know how to train the dogs and they know to keep an eye on the inmates in the program. Jailers make sure inmates follow the training program that Rucker has designed.
Additionally, Rucker comes to the jail to work with the inmates on their training and how they are interacting with the dogs. Using a rewards-based system, the animals learn commands such as “come,” “off,” “drop it” and “sit,” along with a list of others throughout a 16-hour day.
One command, “hit the wall,” directs the dog to join its trainer facing the wall when a ranked deputy enters the pod.
“There’s plenty of play time,” Foster said, “and “fetch” is a favorite.”
The dogs are rotated among the group of men “so they get used to different people handling them,” a practice that makes transition to its forever home easier, Foster said.
“It’s been great,” Foster said. “The guys have really taken to it. We’ve seen a change in them.”
The program doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, Moore explained. The animals receive food and any necessary medicine through the animal shelter. Rucker donates his time, talent and items like collars and leashes. Treats are the only expense the Sheriff’s Office has incurred.
The benefits to both the animal and its trainer are numerous, officials said. Inmates can learn valuable marketable skills, and the program gives them an opportunity to give back something positive to the community. At the same time, the animal becomes more adoptable through the training.
The community benefits as well, Foster said, because the program lowers the euthanasia rate at the county animal shelter and it lowers the costs for animal control.
There are roughly 250 men and 70 women housed in the jail. The dog training program currently has only male participants.
As the program continues, Moore said, plans call for expanding the class of dogs and pool of inmate workers, to cycle between men and women inmate workers, and to select specific dogs for more specialized training to become therapy dogs for law enforcement, child victims, those with PTSD or other special needs.
“We’ve already got different needs in the county that we’ve spotted,” Moore said.
Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman first introduced the idea of instituting the program two years ago.
For more information www.forsythpupswithpurpose.com.