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TREATS gives inmates, Animal Shelter dogs a better chance for a new life

Posted on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at 11:12 am

By Tiffanie Reynolds
Staff Writer
It may look like a group of men telling dogs to sit and stay, but to these trainers, it is a start of a second chance for both themselves and the dogs.

Osceola County Animal Services Director Kim Stanton gives Phoenix to Carmen Burgos and her son during TREATS graduation ceremony on June 20. Phoenix is one of the first two dogs to graduate from TREATS program.

Osceola County Animal Services Director Kim Stanton gives Phoenix to Carmen Burgos and her son during TREATS graduation ceremony on June 20. Phoenix is one of the first two dogs to graduate from TREATS program.

Training and Rescuing Eagerly Adoptable and Talented Dogs (TREATS) is a three-month program that helps dogs from the Osceola County Animal Shelter become Canine Good Citizen certified, and have a higher chance of becoming adopted, through the guided training by inmates in The Transition House’s vocational training program. Started only a few months ago, TREATS’ first two dogs, Phoenix and Princess, completed their certification a month early and graduated on Friday. Both have been adopted through the program, with Phoenix now assisting a 6-year-old boy with autism.
“From the first second it was just play. My son immediately gave the dog a hug, which is not easy. You’re not likely to get a hug from an autistic child, because socialization skills are not easy,” said the boy’s mother, Carmen Burgos, on their first meeting with Phoenix two weeks before graduation.
TREATS grew out of a partnership between Osceola County Animal Services and The Transition House, a local organization that gives inmates in the Florida Department of Corrections prison system vocational training before they are sent to the work release program. After a dog training vocational program for a possible new North Florida Transition House location fell through, CEO Tom Griffin decided to start a similar program for inmates in their Osceola County locations. He contacted Osceola County Animal Services Director Kim Stanton, and, after getting the program approved by the Osceola County Commission, started TREATS this spring.
The program doesn’t train any dog at the shelter, but specifically targets dogs that have been adopted and returned to the shelter more than once. These dogs are usually returned either because they are aggressive or have obedience problems, said Stanton, and she said she saw TREATS as a way to help get these dogs a permanent home before they had to be put down at the shelter.
Viki Dryer, shelter supervisor, and Heather Szaz, volunteer at the Osceola County Animal Shelter and owner of dog training and behavior company Think Alpha Dog, select the dogs for the program.
“It’s based on the individual animal and its behavior in the shelter and how well we think they would fit into the program. Obviously we can’t have dogs that are aggressive towards people, or dogs that are super dog aggressive, because these dogs are worked in close proximity to each other. Minor issues can be addressed with it, but we can’t have any dogs that are truly aggressive,” said Stanton.
Along with selecting the dogs for TREATS, Szaz also teaches the inmates at The Transition House how to train the dogs. She meets with them at The Transition House multiple times a week and works with them on basic training techniques, as well as work with each trainer individually to address any challenges they are having with the dog under
their care.
For this program, each dog is placed under the care of two men, one working as the trainer for the dog and the other working as a training assistant. Since The Transition House’s vocational programs only last three months, this two-man team helps to keep the training consistent. As one graduates out of the program, the training assistant takes over as the main trainer, and takes on another training assistant of his own.
“It’s been really amazing. I have been a life coach in the past. So, I’m kind of like a life coach and a dog trainer. So, I get to use both skills with these. But, I actually let these men do as much as they can on their own. I’m not going to have them be robots. I want to see what kind of skills they have, then I’ll correct them and coach them, because, they’re going out into the world again,” said Szaz.
Right now, the dogs under their care are taught basic commands, tracking and put through agility training. To become Good Canine Citizen certified by the American Kennel Club, dogs need to pass a test demonstrating these basic obedience, tracking and agility skills with the goal of becoming a well-behaved companion in the home.
The men training them are also put through a similar test. As TREATS is a qualified vocational program at The Transition House, inmates that are interested have to go through an employment application and interview process in order to be selected as a dog trainer. If selected, the inmate then starts his job as a sitter, shadowing a trainer and training assistant to learn the dog’s behavior and what is expected of him before taking on the full responsibility.  He then moves up to training assistant and finally working with the dog as a trainer in the program. By the time the inmate is finished with the program, he has enough work experience to pursue careers such as veterinary assistance, dog grooming, dog trainer, or any other animal-oriented field once he is released into the work release program.
“I’ve seen a lot of them grow. Some of them that were reserved, not real social, not really understanding what a therapeutic community is, maybe can relate more to a dog than a human. It’s opened up some avenues such as that, as far as their communication skills, because with the dog comes people wanting to pet, and you have to come out here everyday and train, and you have to not take orders, but listen to what people are telling you for the better of the dog,” said Willard Riggs, TREATS dog program coordinator for The Transition House.
Since the program started a few months ago, the number of men interested in training jumped from 5 to 40 for the next group of dogs.
TREATS also has expanded their number of selected dogs to four, and is looking at training dogs for special needs in the future, if there is a need for it. As a nonprofit, TREATS also is accepting donations from the community, and anyone interested can contact Suzi Maxwell, clinical supervisor of The Transition House at 407-846-0068, Ext. 134.