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Leaving with Hope

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By Stephen Lega

Hope Barrett left Marion Adjustment Center Saturday afternoon with a smile on her face and a new dog by her side.

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The dog, McGyver, is a 4-year-old Great Pyrenees and shepherd mix, who was trained behind the fences of the Columbia unit, the medium security area at Marion County's private prison.

As Barrett and McGyver were leaving, Thomas Elza, an inmate at MAC, followed close behind, offering tips on how to help McGyver adapt to his new home.

Elza is one of several inmates participating in the Second Changes Canine Program at MAC. Through the program, inmates work in pairs to train dogs from the Marion County Animal Shelter to follow basic commands so that the dogs might be adopted rather than being euthanized.

"He's just a big, ol' gentle dog," Elza said.

McGyver is the second dog that has been adopted after being trained by Elza.

"I try to teach 'em the best I can learn 'em and take good care of 'em," he said, "and it's been working."

Barrett was looking for another dog to be a companion for Grace, a dog she adopted from a shelter late last year. She found out about McGyver through petfinder.com, and she came to MAC previously with Grace to see how the dogs would get along.

Barrett spent much of her time Saturday afternoon speaking with Elza about what he has done as part of McGyver's training. It would be fair to say Barrett was impressed, both with McGyver and with Elza.

"He takes it seriously," Barrett said about Elza. "He's put a lot of effort into it."

Fifteen dogs and their handlers participated in Saturday afternoon's dog fair at MAC. While a few of the dogs had already been adopted prior to Saturday, the hope is that all of them will go to good homes.

"It's an all day job," said Bryan Turner, one of the inmates in the program. "We are responsible for the dogs 24 hours a day."

Turner said the program does more than help the dogs find homes, however.

He said he hasn't had any write-ups since he started participating in the program, and he thinks the dogs are good for the environment inside the prison.

"There haven't been any fights here since [the dogs] have been here," Turner said. "It eases tension. I think it relieves stress."

Richard Banks, another inmate in the program, agreed with Turner's assessment. Banks added that working with the dogs also helps while he is serving his sentence.

"It makes it a little bit easier, I guess, because you look forward to doing something every day," he said.

Dr. Sabra St. Germain of All Paws Veterinary Services has been volunteering with the program since its inception at MAC. She admitted that she had doubts about how successful it could be. Even after the dogs were brought to the prison, she said she waited for a phone call reporting a problem. But that phone call never came. Instead, she's been amazed by the interactions she's witnessed between the dogs and inmates as well as with the changes she's seen in the inmates themselves.

"They are more confident. They have more of a sense of responsibility," St. Germain said. "They have more compassion. I can't think of anything else that would have changed them as fast."

Dr. Jennifer Lanham, who is a mental health doctor, approached MAC officials about starting the Second Chances program last year. She added that the program has received support from volunteers and through community donations.

Like St. Germain, Lanham has also seen mutual improvements as a result of the interactions between the dogs and the handlers.

"It's a win-win for both the community and the prison," Lanham said.

Jeff Wooldridge, the Marion County animal control officer, said he has been grateful for the program as well. Part of Wooldridge's job involves euthanizing animals that can't be adopted.

To date, 17 dogs have been adopted through Second Chances.

Charles Smith has been working with Bruno, a rottweiler-golden retriever mix, for about three weeks. Smith added that Bruno is the best dog he's had so far.

The inmates know that the goal is to help the dogs find homes, Smith said. It's sad for the few days after a dog leaves, he said, but the handlers are reenergized when a new dog arrives.

"It helps you mentally. It keeps you away from the negative things that go around," Smith said. "I'm glad they got this program."

Interested in adopting a dog in the program?

Visit petfinder.com where information about the Second Chances dogs and other animal from the Marion County Animal Shelter is posted.