Published: Aug 19, 2010 2:58 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 19, 2010 11:58 AM EDT

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) - When Gavin Scott comes to unlock the gated pen, Spot pants with excitement.

The boxer mix squirms and jumps, ready to be walked around the grounds with Scott holding the leash.

For as long as Scott, 19, can remember, he has had a dog in his life.

But, for the Escambia County Road Prison inmate, going to see Spot run is a cherished time in his day.

Scott teaches Spot to sit, lie down and walk on a leash. He even lets Spot rest on his black boots. When Scott says goodbye to Spot, the dog stares at him and barks.

"I'm sad sometimes (leaving the dog), but there's always another day when I can come and pet him," Scott said.

Scott and other inmates from the road prison visit Escambia County Animal Services as part of an Inmate Training Program that started in September. About three times a week, inmates help train the animals and maintain the grounds.

Linda Lambert, an assistant dog trainer for the shelter, teaches the inmates how to train the animals with food, voice tone and praise. The animals are trained not to jump and walk on a leash without dragging the walker.

Not only is it good for the dogs, it helps inmates, too.

"It's a win-win situation," Lambert said. "It gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of worth."

Volunteer inmates are paired with dogs for four to six weeks.

The program has a tremendous impact on the inmates' self-esteem and relationship with people, Col. Jeff Bohannon, Escambia County Road Prison superintendent, said.

"I oversee a corrections facility. We take that term to the fullest sense. This program is an awesome opportunity to do exactly that," Bohannon said. "There are no losers."

Bohannon said the inmates know they are doing something positive, and their experience with the animals helps them break away from an inmate mentality. When they re-enter society, they are better able to connect with other people and continue positive work.

Since Bohannon began involving inmates in community programs, he said his disciplinary problems at the county prison have dropped 86 percent since 2006.

Dusty Clements, the shelter's manager, said he is pleased to have the inmates help with the animals.

He witnessed the attachment that develops between man and dog firsthand when an inmate came back to claim "Mama Dog" after he was released.

George Felt, the shelter's lead trainer, agreed the inmates are changed for the better. Each inmate picks a dog that they have empathy with, he said.

"You can see them go from a hard-eyed look to a softening, and it's a physical change," Felt said.

Mike Harper, 40, began working at the shelter on Wednesday and chose a yellow Labrador as his partner.

Harper, convicted of credit card theft, said the dog looked at him with sad eyes, so he had to pick it.

In two days, Harper has taught the lab how to walk on a leash and sit.

"All he needs is love and attention," Harper said. "I was going to call him Fido."

The shelter receives 400 to 500 dogs per month. With only 135 runs to place the dogs in, overflow is an issue.

Though the prisoners often become attached to their animals, adoption is still the priority, Felt said.

Inmate Gavin Scott, who is charged with fleeing from police and drug possession, has trained four animals and believes Spot would make a great pet. He would adopt Spot if he could.

His last dog partner was recently adopted.

"I was sad to see her go," he said, "but I was happy she got adopted."