Published: Jun 26, 2012 8:15 PM EDT

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla.- The Collier County Sheriff’s Office is partnering with Naples-based PAWS Assistance Dogs Inc. to train inmates as dog handlers and to have the inmates train the dogs to become assistance and service dogs for wounded veterans and children with disabilities.

The program provides dogs to veterans and children in need, while allowing inmates to experience a feeling of giving back something positive to the community and gaining a sense of responsibility and satisfaction by teaching and taking care of the animals.

For example, Hannah Grant was 6 when a distracted speeding driver struck the car she was in while it was stopped at a red light, leaving her paralyzed.

Since that day in 2007, Hannah, now 11, hasn’t been able to walk, talk or feed herself. All she can do is blink her eyes. 

Soon Hannah will get a helping paw from a golden retriever named Fosse. But first Fosse must get out of jail.

Fosse is currently living at the Collier County jail, where he is training to be a service dog for Hannah.

Training started June 12 with 10 female inmates and three dogs, all golden retrievers. Two more golden retrievers will join the program in July. 

The program is a more rigorous extension of CCSO’s Second Chance Cell Dog program, in which inmates care for and train homeless shelter dogs to prepare them for adoption. The cell dog program, which debuted in November 2011, is a partnership with the Humane Society Naples and the Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance.
The programs are part of a continuing effort by CCSO to teach inmates life skills in conjunction with the agency’s community partners from across Collier County.

“We always work toward providing inmates with skills that will help them lead positive lives when they are released, but it is particularly rewarding to know that in this case we are also helping to pair up some highly trained and loving dogs with some very deserving owners,” said Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk.
Over the course of hundreds of hours, inmates will become skilled in teaching dogs physical tasks such as opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, retrieving items such as a remote control, and assisting in getting dressed. 

They’ll also teach the dogs more vital tasks such as acting as a balance when someone falls and needs help standing up, or finding a quick path out of a crowded room when bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder suddenly arise.

“Once these dogs are fully trained they will be certified as therapy, service or assistance dogs,” said PAWS Executive Director Jeannie Bates.

PAWS dogs are primarily golden retrievers bred under strict service dog standards. These breeding programs have a proven history of producing top-quality working canine partners and health screenings are traceable as far back as 10 generations or more, according to Bates.

The three golden retrievers arrived at the jail in different stages of their training. Fourteen-week-old Blue is in the beginning stages of his training, while 10-month-old August and 14-month-old Fosse are in the intermediate stages.

Most service and assistance dogs can’t be placed until they are around 2 years old, said Bates.

While the majority of the dogs trained at the jail will be donated to wounded military men and women, Fosse will be gifted to Hannah and her family.

Lynn Grant, Hannah’s mother, said the family is looking forward to their new furry member. If the initial meeting between Hannah and Fosse at their home in Lee County last fall is any indication, the two will be fast friends.

“It went very well,” Grant said of the meeting. “Hannah seemed very focused on the animal. He just fit right in. He’s such a sweet dog.”

She said she and her husband started out looking for a service dog that could alert for seizures, which Hannah suffers due to the head injury she received in the crash. Because the girl’s seizures are difficult to detect, they explored other options. They contacted the PAWS program after seeing a video on the Internet of Bates and a service dog she trained named Cody Bear for a wounded veteran.

Fosse will be more of a companion to Hannah rather than a task dog, her mother said. She’s also hoping he’ll trigger interaction between Hannah and other children when they are out in public, something now lacking in her life.

Grant said she thinks it’s “wonderful” that inmates are now involved in training Fosse.

“It’s a great program,” Grant said. “We’re really looking forward to this. We’re just really happy that there will be something that will enrich Hannah’s life.”