Tomoka Correctional Institution, Fla. -- Cathy is a two-year-old with bright hazel eyes and a very friendly disposition. She's been in training for nearly seven weeks and can easily turn on and off a light switch.
"You show her anything about three times and she's got it down," said her trainer Brian Schirmer. "Within her first two weeks I knew she was really intelligent; she studies everything you do and then does it herself."
Cathy came from the Halifax Humane Society in Daytona Beach, Fla. Before that no one knows for sure, but Schirmer says she's special.
"I saw in those beautiful eyes that she was smart," Schirmer said. "She's been my best bud ever since and I'm close to crying right now because I'm really going to miss this one."
Schirmer has been training companion dogs for about a year. Like Cathy, he had to overcome a few obstacles to get into the program, which included taking on a letter-writing campaign to get approved.
"Eventually the Warden let me in," he said.
Schirmer is an inmate at the Tomoka Correctional Institution and one of several AKC-guided dog trainers in the Prison Pups N Pals program. The program is a 2010 collaboration of Tomoka, the West Volusia Kennel Club, and the Halifax Humane Society, working together to find viable "no kill" options for shelter dogs who need a second chance.
The dogs entered into the Pups & Pals program are selected based on their trainability and the potential to be of service to disabled Floridians and those in need of a helpful companion.
"Cathy, sit; make a friend," Schirmer commands and Cathy sits and extends me her left paw. "Very good girl," Schirmer rewards and Cathy beams.
Cathy is not a show dog with pedigrees; she is a mixed-breed pit bull terrier.
"She's very relaxed in here and that's important," said Schirmer from the Tomoka multi-purpose room. "Normally this room is empty but today there are 80 chairs in here and just as many new smells." But Cathy handles it easily. "We look for that when training them for our Veterans."
In 2011 Jennifer Muni-Sathoff, a mental health social worker at the Orlando VA Daytona Outpatient Clinic (OPC), recommended to the VA a program that brought Prison Pups N Pals-trained companion dogs to Veterans needing support with physically debilitating emotional problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. Her idea, named Paws of Freedom, was adopted by the VA under its 2011 VA Innovation Program.
"The program embodied the community collaboration model with Pups N Pals working together with us to provide a companion dog viable for a Veteran's needs," said Muni-Sathoff. "They had proven themselves to be effective in their communities, and I wanted to bring those benefits to our Veterans as well."
Prison Pups N Pals is the only national prison-trained dog adoption program that partners an American Kennel Club (AKC) chapter, a local kennel club with professional dog breeders, the Humane Society, and a correctional facility to meet the combined goals of each organization: provide second chances. It was a perfect match for Muni-Sathoff's intent that included one important element: shelter dogs.
"Shelter dogs, like Veterans, have been through trauma and the shared experiences seem to build a high level of trust," said Muni-Sathoff. "Each knows what it is like to suffer and do without, and that seems to build a strong bond that enhances healing on both sides."
This is great news for Amy Carotenuto, animal care director at the Halifax Humane Society, who knows that shelter dogs are not in short supply.
"Our shelter receives a little more than 7,500 dogs per year and unless they're small their chances of adoption are slim," Carotenuto said. "Fortunately this program has brought significant publicity to the value dogs like Cathy bring to families and we're seeing greater adoption rates among the larger dogs now."
The Pups N Pals program has a 100 percent adoption rate but not all dogs are so lucky.
"Still we had a record number of adoptions last year, so things are much better than they've been in the past thanks to Pups N Pals and Paws of Freedom," Carotenuto said. "In fact, we waive all fees for Veterans who choose a companion dog as part of the program."
One great benefit of the Paws of Freedom program comes from a dog's natural inclination to listen and their inability to speak, at least in human forms.
"Veterans have said to me 'I can't talk to my wife or my children about my experiences, but I can talk with my dog about them,'" said Muni-Sathoff. "We encourage that and it seems to be working; the Veteran's know the dog won't tell their secrets or judge them and that builds trust with another soul."
According to Muni-Sathoff the relationship between Veteran and companion extends deeper. "The dogs watch out for the Veterans, watch for them when they're away and have been known to wake Veterans up from nightmares and keep them close when they're upset," she said. "Many of our Veterans and their families tell the same stories and they insist that I come and watch the connection taking place."
Muni-Sathoff believes the connection is helping Veterans transition to being more open with family and friends about their suffering.
"The thought is that if the Veteran can form a healthy emotional relationship with the dog, then they can move on to increasing trust and connectedness with people," she said. "With PTSD one of the symptoms we see is a loss of connection, and this program has proven it can help increase it."
Denise DaCosta, chief of social work at OVAMC, is a big advocate of Muni-Sathoff and her program because of the clinical value it provides.
"I'm a huge supporter of Paws of Freedom because it helps us heal Veterans one at a time," she said. "If the Veteran feels better, needs less medication, requires fewer visits or periods of hospitalization, is living a healthier life with greater quality, then the hope is their relapse frequency will decrease as their quality of life increases within their communities."
But getting to the point of making that kind of progress is difficult when a Veteran cannot open up to providers. Thanks to Muni-Sathoff's program they're learning to do just that, and it's making a huge clinical difference.
"We see a lot of return cases of Veterans with PTSD and we have a number of evidence-supported programs that work, but many of the Veterans are not even at a point where we can begin to apply them," said DaCosta. "Jennifer's program helps bring them to that level, so for us Paws of Freedom has proven to have incredible value."
"And once a Veteran opens up he or she can serve as a conduit to helping other Veterans do the same, so the significance of the change in just that one Veteran is huge," DaCosta said. "It really makes a difference."
Allyn Weigel and Marj Blomquist are members of the West Volusia Kennel Club in Deland, Fla. Weigel, a U.S. Army Veteran from the Korean War and co-founder of the Pups N Pals program, recognizes the bad reputation some breeders get from puppy-milling, and both he and Blomquist work very hard to dispel negative perceptions.
"I'm a breeder of German Shepherds and have been for 41 years, and there are organizations that look at us as the cause of the many animals that fill the animal shelters and Humane Society," said Weigel. “Nothing is further from the truth but we needed to find a way to demonstrate that, and show not only how we take a responsible approach to breeding, but also take care of those animals that end up without a home."
"You don't make money breeding dogs if you do it right and do it responsibly but not everyone does," Weigel said. "Marj and I made it our challenge to make sure these shelter dogs are not euthanized and that they find good homes, and these programs help us make that a reality."
For Weigel, Paws of Freedom proved a concept he developed in Korea more than half a century ago.
"As a Soldier in Korea I recognized a problem we were having guarding ammunition stores where the enemy would sneak by our guard and steal munitions, and often they'd end up using them on us," Weigel said. "I found out the Air Force was using dogs to guard their aircraft and flight lines and got the idea to bring dogs into the munitions-guarding business."
"It worked very well because of the dog's keen abilities with scent, sight and hearing, as well as their intuitive nature to guard and protect the home," he said. "Once the dogs came, the enemy stopped coming around the ammunition stores."
The innate capabilities dogs possess are what Weigel believes best serves his fellow Veterans.
"In this program we're using those same abilities and intuition to provide a companion that serves Veterans," he said. "They're not service dogs - service dogs take many months and thousands of dollars to train; companion dogs are trained quickly and can be brought into service in a very short period of time."
"It is very time and cost effective," Weigel said.
The West Volusia Kennel Club is an AKC member and Blomquist said they've been a phenomenal supporter of both Pups N Pal and Paws of Freedom.
"AKC provides free publicity and enrollment in the Canine Partners Program for anyone who adopts a dog within Pups N Pal and Paws of Freedom," Blomquist said. "They provided our first set of agility equipment the dogs used to train here at Tomoka to be companion animals, and they have opened registration to AKC discipline and other courses to mixed breed dogs."
Both Weigel and Blomquist are avid supporters of the Paws of Freedom program because of its focus on Veterans recovery and wellness.
"Allyn and I recognize how important these dogs are not only to their owners but to members of the community as well, especially where taking care of our Veterans is concerned," Blomquist said. "Pedigree doesn't matter when the animal is providing the love, support and companionship the Veteran needs, and both the West Volusia Kennel Club and AKC are proud to support those relationships and include the owners and animals in their programs."
During the Pups N Pals graduation ceremony at Tomoka on Feb. 13 inmate Brian Schirmer is a little misty-eyed. Cathy seems to sense the emotion and she sits close by, flanked by nearly a dozen other graduates who wag tongues and stretch out on the floor by their trainers.
"You work with them constantly; you give them a lot of love and discipline and their personality comes out," said Schirmer while stroking Cathy's ears. "When it does you roll with it; if she's a lover, then you train her to be a lover's dog. You work within their natural personalities to train them, and when they display that personality within the rules you set then it's just like a reward to them, just like getting a treat."
Schirmer, who is from the Orlando area, is getting a treat too: confidence, social acceptance and a new job skill.
"The program has changed me completely," he said, "and it takes me away from prison as this is a 24-hour job. We really don't have time for anything else but these dogs. Every seven weeks you have another dog and it keeps you on your toes."
Officer Gail Irwin, the Pups N Pals program coordinator at Tomoka, gives both the efforts and inmates rave reviews.
"This program has had a huge beneficial effect on re-entry skills," she said. "It teaches responsibility, teaches how to care for the animals and that is significant because some of the inmates have never learned to care for anything."
"But with these dogs it's like learning to be a new parent; the caring comes out, the feelings come out and suddenly you're not dealing with hardened criminals anymore," she said. "This helps so much when they re-enter society because they have a whole new perspective on life; it's great to see and even better for the communities they settle within."
The Tomoka inmates serve sentences of ten years of less, and are often on the cusp of re-entering society. The programs help them do so ready for a second chance.
"These efforts give everyone a second chance," Irwin said. "The dogs get a second chance at a caring life and family; the inmates get a second chance at caring for the dogs and each other, and the Veterans get a second chance to connect and build trust with their dog and then their family and friends."
Those sentiments were echoed by Tomoka assistant Warden Angel Gordon.
"The program is a benefit to the animals, the inmates and the community and we look at is as a second chance for everyone: the animals learn new skills that make them better pets and gives them the opportunity to have a forever home; the inmates learn responsibility and a new skill that hopefully will benefit their future employment opportunities; and the community benefits by having fewer dogs in the humane society and having better trained dogs going to families," Gordon said.
"All in all this program is a win-win for all involved," she said. "The dogs on our compound add a calming element not found in many prisons that has a positive influence on the inmates and the staff too. I am very pleased with the partnership displayed here and adding the Paws of Freedom portion of the program has only enriched us - we now have the added pleasure of providing benefits to the Veteran's that have served us so valiantly."
Weigel said companionship and bonding with others is the key to that happening.
"What follows are discipline, personal pride, and healthy competition within a natural hierarchy of support, trust and responsibility," he said. "I call it the Army method but it's everything you want to see in building healthy relationships between people, or between people and their dogs."
Muni-Sathoff, who has worked incredibly hard and well for Veterans welfare, fully agrees.
"It's a life-changing experience for the dogs, the inmates, the Veterans and for us as well," she said. "We are all the beneficiaries of these efforts, and it's great to see the Pups N Pals program supporting our communities well as the Paws of Freedom program does so much for the Veterans who have done so much for us all."
For more information on the Paws of Freedom program contact the Orlando VA Public Affairs office at 407-599-1301. To find out more about the Tomoka Prison Pups N Pals program visit their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pups-N-Pals/273649002727169.