dog trainer Heather Szasz runs TREATS Dog Rescue,
which uses inmates at a Kissimmee transition house
to train shelter dogs from Osceola County Animal
— 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.
shelter was going to euthanize her because nobody
thought she was adoptable," LeLand says. "We
were her last chance."
name was Hope.
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.
a dog-training program started in spring 2014, LeLand
was among the first to raise his hand.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
dozen now live with the families of the inmates or
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.
months ago, Bohl’s parents came for a visit and ended
up with Wiggles, a black-mouth cur.
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."
not just the dogs that benefit, though.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
of those is LeLand, hired by Bass Pet Resort & Spa,
where he has been promoted to manager.
Hope came in here, I had no idea what to expect,"
he says. "I would say a prayer before I opened her
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.
as LeLand worked with her, it changed both of them.
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.
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."