“Working with these dogs makes me feel like I have a purpose. I find joy in helping others, instead of just being focused on myself.”
These are the words of a Lowell Correctional Institution inmate, a woman who has been part of the WOOF dog-training program for two years.
The Women Offering Obedience and Friendship (WOOF) program was created in 2011 as a partnership with the Florida Department of Corrections. It is managed by Julie Drexel, a Saint Leo student who is earning her Master of Social Work degree online. She works with a number of female inmates at the Ocala correctional facility to train service dogs for military veterans, via her Patriot Service Dogs program. Prior to training service dogs, the women become familiar with canines first by walking them and then by training Marion County Humane Society dogs to make them more adoptable.
Only women who have shown the ability to be trustworthy and reliable are accepted into the WOOF program. Living with the dogs in their special dorm—with three to five inmates and dogs per room—is a privilege. The dorm is shared by inmates who work in the nearby equine program, as well as prison orderlies.
Every day, Monday through Friday, the women train the dogs for several hours, both in the dorm and in the work yard. Some of the women teach basic obedience to the Humane Society dogs, with a new class of dogs starting every eight weeks. The program boasts a 100 percent success rate in finding forever homes for the graduates.
The other women work with dogs, starting as puppies, to train them in serving military veterans who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical challenges. Over a two-year period, they teach more than 80 commands and are completely responsible for the care of the dogs. They teach the canines to turn lights on and off, fetch and carry items, open and close cabinets and drawers, help with guidance and balance, and offer companionship for those with PTSD. On weekends, local residents assist by helping to socialize the dogs, by taking them to stores, restaurants, and other public places.
“This program has helped me build my confidence and learn patience,” one inmate said. “It’s hard work, but I see positive results, and I like helping men and women who have served.”
Since the Patriot Service Dogs program is a nonprofit, made possible completely by volunteers, the service dogs are offered to veterans free of charge.
Another benefit of the program is the effects it has on the inmates. Drexel encourages the women to learn not only about dog training, but about the world. She has implemented an education plan, through which the women read books and do book reports, watch educational videos, and take tests. The program also offers a wellness class and college courses.
“The program is not a success if it’s only about the dogs,” explained Drexel, a former teacher with a bachelor’s degree in education. “If the inmates leave and come back, we have failed. I want to teach them real-life skills and instill confidence, as well as woman power.”
“Miss Julie has made me feel I can do anything,” another inmate said. “I’m working on my GED.”
Working with the dogs not only gives the inmates a sense of accomplishment, but also provides stories they can tell their families when they visit. Sometimes their dogs are part of the family visits, too, which puts everyone more at ease.
“My daughter is proud of me,” one young mom said. “She sees I am doing something important.”
Drexel was inspired to learn about dog training after a young neighbor had suffered a stroke and needed a service dog, but there was a two-year wait. She started by volunteering as a puppy raiser and eventually co-founded Patriot Service Dogs with Susan Bolton in 2009. “Dogs can fix all kinds of problems,” she said.
She decided to pursue her Master of Social Work degree at Saint Leo because she believes the coursework will better prepare her for community outreach efforts, as well as her relationships with the inmates and other volunteers.
“I learn so much from these women every day,” Drexel said. “Knowing them has made me more grateful, more appreciative. I’m a better person for doing this program.”
When the women of the WOOF program talk about their dogs, they exude excitement and pride. They talk about being responsible and accountable, working hard and being organized. One mom talked about how much she misses her daughter and how prison was making her hardened. Working with the dogs “helps me know what it’s like to have feelings again.”
Another inmate who has been incarcerated for more than 15 years has big plans for when she is released. She has dreams of working as a dog trainer or a veterinarian’s assistant. “The best thing about me is working with these dogs,” she said. “My life will never be the same.”
Note: Names of the inmates have been withheld to respect confidentiality.