John and Carol Strigle sat at the Tomoka Correctional Institute Work Camp in Daytona Beach Thursday, March 12, watching as inmates Toby Albritton and Samuel George demonstrated how they trained Vincy and Finn, the dogs that would soon belong to the Strigles.
The Palm Coast couple found out about the Prison Pups N Pals program while doing online research after their dog died eight months ago.
“Without an animal in the house, it was a cold hard box,” John Strigle said after the Prison Pups N Pals graduation. His new dog, Finn, sat next to him.
When the couple originally started working with the program, they had their eye on adopting VIncy, a small-breed dog who was found abandoned, tied to a fence in a dog park.
He came to the program three weeks late and was trained by Albritton, who has been in the program for four months and incarcerated for 3.5 years.
“He was a challenge,” Albritton said. “The majority of dogs want to be around you, but he was scared of humans. But eventually, he wanted to be a lap dog. The family that adopted him loved him to death; they visited twice a week.”
While visiting Vincy at the work camp, the Strigles got to know and love some of the other dogs in the program. After learning that Finn, a dog going through his second cycle in the program, didn’t have an adopter, they decided to add him to their family as well.
“He’d been here since November, and he’s been overlooked,” John Strigle said as he fed Finn treats. “His next stop was back to the Humane Society and I know what the possibilities could be, but I couldn’t let that happen.”
For George, Finn’s trainer, seeing the dog go was a bittersweet moment.
“I knew immediately that I wanted him,” said George, who has been training dogs for the past three years of his seven years of incarceration. “Shortly after Thanksgiving, my grandfather passed. It’s hard to deal with the death of a close relative in here. Finn acted as a counselor of some sort for me. Dogs, they know when you’re going through something.”
The Prison Pups N Pals program was established in 2010 by West Volusia Kennel Club members Allyn Weigel and Marj Blomquist, who provide training oversight for the partnership. The program’s mission is to improve the adoptability of healthy shelter dogs with a collaboration in which work camp inmates provide obedience instruction to Halifax Humane Society rescue dogs. Highly successful dogs attend supplemental training at the work camp for the VA Paws of Freedom program, and are placed with military veterans.
Inmates who participate in the Prison Pups program have to pass a psychological screening, have no violent offenses and have a proper classification per the correctional facility. Correctional Officer and Prison Pups Coordinator Gail Irwin said she also gives an additional evaluation before inmates are allowed in the program. The program provides inmates with job training skills including basic dog obedience and grooming, and understanding of canine breed differences and how to show a dog. But inmate George said the program has provided so much more: a positive self-image and self-esteem.
“When I came into the system, I didn’t know something like this was possible — that productivity was possible,” George said. “This is such a reward to give back to society. If I can do it in here, then I can certainly do it when I re-enter society.”
Inmate Albritton said that even though he has only been in the program a short while, he has improved his people skills, patience, discipline and responsibility.
“That’s going to help me get my priorities straight so I don’t go back to my old way of life,” he said. “This program is amazing. What it does for the dogs and the inmates — it totally transforms both of us.”