EFFINGHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WSAV) – Some local dogs are gearing up for their forever homes by going through a special kind of training.

The dogs at the Effingham County Animal Shelter are currently participating in the Pawsitive Changes Prison Program, where they are learning placement, the sit, stay and down commands, and to walk on leashes — all under the instruction of local prisoners.

“I’ve been training animals and people a long time.  You can teach any person and any dog a certain amount but there are naturals that just come in and it’s a second nature to them,” said Lorna Shelton, the Effingham County Animal Shelter Director.

She continued, “These guys are off to a good start, I will say.  They are grasping the commands and they are grasping what they need to do with the dogs. 

“You know, when you have dogs at your own home, that dog is used to you and your family.  They’re working with every dog in the shelter that’s available for adoption, and new dogs come into the program at any time.”

Tyrik Stargell said this is his first time training dogs and shared what he thought when he first heard about the program.

“It’s a good program, it works.  It’s just all on the person and how their mindset is.  As long as they’re in the right place or got the heart for a dog, or want to do it, it’s a good program.”

One of the dogs currently in the program is Ivy, who is a mixed breed around 4 years old.

“Ivy actually is my longest resident.  She will be here for six months on the 15th of February.  She did have heartworm, so we got a local organization to donate her treatments, so she is now heartworm negative. She really needs a home,” said Shelton.

She said Ivy is a lovely, large dog who gets along with dogs her size.

“She’s not a fan of cats,” Shelton said.

Ivy is known to enjoy attention, food, walks in the morning, running around and playing with a ball.

Shelton said Ivy is good with children; but would be cautious about smaller toddlers because she is large and when she plays, she gets rambunctious and could knock a child over.

Antonio Hartao teaching Ivy a command. (Photo taken by Hollie Lewis)

Altogether, there are around 14 dogs that the inmates work with in the five- to six-week program and some of them have been adopted since their training.

Antonio Hartao, who is assigned to the shelter as his regular duty and mentor of the new inmates entering, said he tries not to get too attached to the dogs.

“It’s a possibility that they can leave at any time, but I mainly just focus on their obedience level, that way when they get to a new home, somebody will be more likely to keep them, you know, and they will be in a happy home.”

Not only do the dogs get a new outlook on life, so do some of the inmates.

“Working with the community and the public has helped me a lot to open up more because I’ve been incarcerated for a while,” said Hartao. “So it’s just getting me ready for society and I believe I’m doing really well.”

Explaining the change she has seen in Hartao, Shelton said, “When he came here, he had kind of a dark personality.  Since he’s been working here, he has opened up, he smiles more, he has no problems interacting with people now with the public and answering their questions about the animals that he takes care of, so I have definitely noticed a difference in his personality from when he came here to what he is today.”

For those in the community who would like to get involved with the Pawsitive Changes Prison Program, Shelton said donations will help.

“The Bil Jac that we use for training, we could use those as donations because we go through quite a few of them.  Or, any type of training treat, but they seem to really like them.”

Shelton said the best help is for people to come in and adopt their dogs.

On the adoption process, she said, “If you have pets, we strongly encourage you to come up with your dog to do a meet and greet.  Obviously, if you have children, we recommend that you bring children as well. 

“You can find our dogs on Pet Finder.  Sometimes I will tell you that I see dogs that are not a fit for a family, and I try to find a fit that will work with the family.”

In the meantime, the dogs will continue to get trained.

Chris Reece who has been working with the dogs for two weeks said, “I get to work with animals, I love them all.”

Pawsitive Changes Prison Program teaches dog training to prison inmates with the goal of helping the Effingham County Animal Shelter transform unmannerly pooches into pet prospects.  So far four inmates have graduated from the program.

“I actually work with the counselors at the prison, and they know the inmates.  They know their ins and outs, but they’ll sign up to volunteer and then the counselors and the warden actually will go over and select who they think would be most benefited at the time,” explained Shelton. “Quite a few have signed up to do the program and now, there’s a waitlist.”