On Thursday, Sept. 7, St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office held its first Paws For Change graduation ceremony recognizing completion of general training for two service dogs that will ultimately be paired with eligible veterans by K9s For Warriors. The dogs were trained by inmates at the county jail.
The program is a win-win-win.
“It helps the inmates, it helps the veterans and it also helps the dogs,” said Sgt. Michael Clark.
The dogs, which are procured from shelters, play a major role in transforming — and potentially saving — the lives of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma.
Participating inmates learn new life skills that will help them after they complete their period of incarceration.
“It helps them reach inside themselves and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some responsibility for doing something good for the community,” Clark said.
Anthony Godby, who with fellow inmate Wyatt Jensen trained Daisy, a yellow Lab, said he hopes to apply for a job with K9s For Warriors after this experience.
The program came along at just the right time for him.
“It kind of opened my eyes,” he said.
He said having something like this to do helped the time go a lot faster.
Jensen, who was mauled by a German shepherd when he was 13, had to overcome his aversion to dogs before volunteering.
“I’m glad they’re going to help veterans,” he said.
Two other inmates, Brad Claypool and Tim Heritage, trained Parker, a black Lab.
Deputy Laura Welty oversees the program for the Sheriff’s Office.
Thursday, April Johnson, director of K9 training for K9s For Warriors, and Andrew Lovizio, manager of K9 training, presented the four men with certificates recognizing their achievement.
The dogs were trained over 12 weeks. Following graduation, they went to the K9s For Warriors facility for three weeks of additional training in public settings. Then, they will go to the veterans.
The Sheriff’s Office was inspired by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which had been doing this for a couple of years.
“We decided to step up and say, ‘Hey, let us do our part and try to help,’” said Clark.
Adding more trained dogs to the program will shorten the wait time for eligible veterans.
“These two canines are going to save lives,” said St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick. He cited statistics that say about 17 veterans commit suicide each day in America.
He said this program is also part of his efforts to curb recidivism. Three years ago, recidivism in St. Johns County was 25%. Today, that has been reduced to 15%.
For more information about K9s For Warriors, go to k9sforwarriors.org.