Shelter dogs get a new leash on life with inmates

August 10, 2015

Professional dog trainer Heather Szasz runs TREATS Dog Rescue, which uses inmates at a Kissimmee transition house to train shelter dogs from Osceola County Animal Services.

ORLANDO — When Scott LeLand first encountered the dog that would change his life, she had been starved, abandoned and left to die at the end of a 14-foot logging chain.

"The shelter was going to euthanize her because nobody thought she was adoptable," LeLand says. "We were her last chance."

Her name was Hope.

LeLand, 54, is nearing the end of a 101/2-year prison sentence for DUI manslaughter. He lives in a converted motel in Kissimmee, Fla., called The Transition House, where felons with good behavior can go for community work-release programs, a step toward the freedom that lies shortly down the road.

When a dog-training program started in spring 2014, LeLand was among the first to raise his hand.

Heather Szasz, the British-born founder of Think Alpha Dog, had just volunteered as a trainer for Osceola County Animal Services when one of the directors from The Transition House asked the county about creating a program.

"I had never worked with guys who had been in prison before," Szasz says. "But I loved the idea. I wanted to see if I could make a difference for the dogs and for the people."

She called it TREATS Dog Rescue — for Training and Rescuing Eagerly Adoptable and Talented Shelter Dogs — and has donated all her time. She also created a Facebook page, in part to raise money for dog food and materials so there would be no taxpayer expense. These are, after all, dogs that likely would be put down if not for the program. Some had been adopted before and brought back to the county shelter for behavior problems. Most had languished at the shelter for months, with no one interested in giving them a home.

The men understood the feeling. Some had spent as much as a decade in prison already — several, like LeLand, for killing someone while driving drunk. If they wanted to gain the privilege of training the dogs, they would have to care for the animals around the clock — feeding them, grooming them and cleaning up after them.

Szasz began with five inmates and two dogs, but the program quickly expanded. At last count, 20 inmates have studied under Szasz, and 38 dogs — which began as too shy, too aggressive or too unruly — have found permanent homes.

A dozen now live with the families of the inmates or staff.

"Working with the dogs has definitely taught me patience," says Cody Bohl, now 24. He had been involved in an armed robbery at age 17, when he tagged along with a friend who had a gun. No one was hurt, but the weapon boosted his sentence substantially.

Six months ago, Bohl’s parents came for a visit and ended up with Wiggles, a black-mouth cur.

"She was my favorite," Bohl says. "The plan originally was for me to take her when I get out (in 14 months), but now my mom says I have to leave her because she’s best friends with their other dog, and my parents have fallen in love with her. It’s OK. I’ll just have to get another dog."

It’s not just the dogs that benefit, though.

"These dogs have been disposed of, and a lot of these men know what that’s like," said Steven Agelidis, clinical supervisor at The Transition House. "But through their bond, they’re able to work on that and realize there is unconditional love. They learn to give it and receive it."

For Gavin Forrest, 25, doing time for aggravated assault and grand theft, it happened with a dog named Phoenix, who was stung in the face by a bee.

"His whole face was swollen, and it looked pretty bad," Forrest said. "I don’t cry over much, but it actually made me start crying. I never felt so much love for an animal until I saw the way he looked at me."

Szasz teaches the men not only about training and handling the dogs, but how to care for them. She teaches them about how their energy affects the dogs’ energy. She has them watch videos, read books and take tests. She quizzes them verbally.

Recently she granted her own certificates of graduation to eight of them. They won’t leave the facility yet, but they will have something to show for it when they do. Three of them already have jobs working at kennels and grooming facilities.

One of those is LeLand, hired by Bass Pet Resort & Spa, where he has been promoted to manager.

"When Hope came in here, I had no idea what to expect," he says. "I would say a prayer before I opened her kennel door."

The pit-bull mix had an aggressive streak — the result of past trauma. At the shelter, she had beaten her tail against the concrete walls to the point that the tail had to be amputated.

But as LeLand worked with her, it changed both of them.

Hope is now staying at the kennel where LeLand works. He sees her every day and is counting down the time to Jan. 21, when he’ll be released, and he’ll take Hope to a home of his own.

"You spend eight years behind bars without anyone to love, without anyone to touch, and then you get a chance like Hope," he says. "I think she felt my pain, and I felt hers."

 

 





 


Associated Press