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Inmates and canines
New program teaching Effingham prisoners how to train shelter dogs
Submitted Inmate Dontavous Shobe takes “Sapphire” for a walk as part of the Pawsitive Changes Prison Program that helps socialize shelter dogs to become adoptable.

SPRINGFIELD – Kirk Brennaman had an idea that changed the lives of a few Effingham County Prison inmates and will likely save the lives of a few canines at the Effingham County Animal Shelter.

Just over a month ago, Brennaman started sharing his dog training knowledge with a quartet of inmates at the shelter. The prisoners, in turn, transformed about a dozen unmannerly pooches into pet prospects through the Pawsitive Changes Prison Program.

James Duff, JeuQuann Ralph, Dontavous Shobe and Antonio Hartl each received certificates of completion during a graduation ceremony Friday. The event was attended by Warden Victor Walker, Assistant Warden Joseph Scroggins and Senior Counselor Janet Robere.

“It’s nice to see how this has worked out,” said Brennaman, owner and operator of Down and Dirty Dog Training in Rincon. “I think it has been a big success.”

Animal Shelter Director Lorna Shelton couldn’t agree more. Brennaman pitched the idea to her during a recent chance meeting. It came to fruition after quick approval from Walker.

“We now have dogs that will sit on command, dogs that will walk nicely on a leash,” Shelton said. “A dog that will somewhat listen to you and not jump on you is more likely to get adopted than a dog that is wild, and the dogs that come in the shelter -- 98 percent of them -- have no manners whatsoever.

“They are in here because they have been allowed to run free.”

Shelton appreciates the inmates’ work. James Duff, JeuQuann Ralph, Dontavous Shobe and Antonio Hartl volunteered for the job, which featured two-hour sessions three times a week.

“I’ve noticed a difference in all the dogs,” she said. “Even the wildest ones benefit.”

The inmates have changed, too.

“They’ve opened up more now and are more talkative,” Shelton said. “They are more relaxed so their training is more relaxed.”

Submitted Effingham County Prison inmates who are part of the training program (from left): James Duff, JeuQuann Ralph, Dontavous Shobe and Antonio Hart.

Walker supported the program from the get-go.

“I’m all for anything that is positive and will try to help these guys turn this thing around in terms of rehabilitation,” he said.

Walker said Duff, Ralph, Shobe and Hartl were approved for the program because of their temperament.

“Obviously, it starts with their conduct at the facility,” the warden said, “and before I assign anybody to the shelter, I always ask them if they think they can work around dogs. I know some people have a complex about dogs.”

JeuQuann Ralph relished each training session. His participation in the program will result in a sentence reduction but that isn’t why he volunteered for it.

“I like dogs,” he said.

Ralph has a special affinity for a muscular, tan bulldog named Adeline.

“I’d like to have her when I get out,” he said with a big smile.

Ralph and Shobe said other inmates became very interested in what they were doing.

“They asked questions every time I got back to the dorm,” Ralph said. “There are a lot of guys that want to get involved.”

The inmates were warned by Brennaman not to display any fear but admitted to feeling a tad wary during the first training session.

“It got better the second time,” Ralph said. “The dogs made a big improvement (in behavior) that second week.”

“It’s about building the rapport between the person handling the dog and the dog itself,” Brennaman added. “There is an unspoken trust and respect. If you show the dog confidence with respect at the same time coming from you, then the dog in return usually shows confidence and respect.”

The inmates met or exceeded Brennaman’s expectations.

“These guys did good,” he said. “They handled the dogs properly and were receptive to what I was saying and what Mrs. Lorna was saying collectively. You could see how much better it got every time I came.

“In return, you saw the dogs respecting them as handlers a lot better. They’ve done a good job of making these dogs feel comfortable.”

A second group of inmates will start the Pawsitive Changes Prison Program, which is provided to county and state government at no cost, later this month. At the end of it, a public event will be conducted to show what they and the dogs have learned.