Visiting Alaqua Animal Refuge with her niece this past June, Jessica Jones thought she might have taken home a puppy she saw online, but as fate would have it, she met Nicole.
"My niece was filling out a volunteer application and I was walking around," Jones recalls.
Then she saw, Nicole, a young yellow Labrador. Noticing her interest, an Alaqua worker brought Nicole to meet Jones.
"They're great about matching people with pets," Jones said. "I am so in love with her."
Of course every owner believes his or her pet is special, but in Nicole's case it is true in every sense of the word since she was brought to Alaqua through the Unconditional Love Project, which rescues unwanted dogs from neglect and abuse and tasks inmates with training them to be used as therapy dogs.
Not every dog graduates from the program, which is OK. They then become wonderful pets to those looking to open their hearts and homes to a rescue animal.
The Unconditional Love Project began in 2011 and currently operates at Bay Correctional Facility in Panama City and Calhoun Correctional Institution in Blountstown with plans to expand to other facilities. The 10-week program pairs adoptable canines with prisoners to be trained in basic skills such as sit, stand, heel and leash walk. The training commences with a Canine Good Citizen certification from the American Kennel Club.
"It's a wonderful program that is mutually beneficial," said Samantha Graves, program director for the Unconditional Love Project.
Dogs in the program are typically those that have been overlooked in the shelter. Nicole herself had been overlooked for some time, but through the program people took notice of her obedient behavior, Graves said. Some dogs go even further in their training to become service pets. After receiving a Therapy Dog International certificate, dogs are donated, free of charge, to those in need.
"The benefits are boundless," Graves said. "We like to say it gives the dogs a new leash on life."
Graduating dogs have become therapy dogs in a children's cancer ward in Pensacola, or at the Walton County library to facilitate reading. Some have even moved on to search and rescue units.
Prisoners must exhibit good behavior before entering the program, which gives them something to work toward, Graves said. At the end of the program, they are certified as a trainer, providing them with a skill to use upon release.
‘Great for the pet, Great for the prisoners’
Having a well-behaved and house-trained dog is a major benefit for animal lovers who don't have the time to train. This appealed to Jones, who is a Realtor at Sandestin Golf and Beach resort.
"She's a year and a half, so there's still a little puppy left in her," Jones said. "But she hasn't chewed anything, she doesn't jump and I think she's only barked twice since I've brought her home. She's fantastic."
Jones not only works at Sandestin, but is a resident as well. The community is very dog-friendly, she said.
"Nicole loves riding in the golf cart and walking around the village," Jones said. "I walk her twice a day and it's a great way to meet neighbors. It brings back that small-town feeling."
Jones has already acquired a beach permit and looks forward to taking her new friend to the beach.
With dogs in her family as long as she can remember, Jones may be adding another four-legged friend to her home in the future.
"The next time I'm ready to adopt, I'll be looking at ones in this program first," she said. "It's great for the pet, great for the prisoners and great for the owners."
Want to help?
Learn more about the Unconditional Love Project, volunteering opportunities or donate online at www.alaquaanimalrefuge.org. The 3rd Annual Rosemary Beach Unleashed will be held on Sunday, Nov. 17, from 1 to 4 p.m. on East Long Green in Rosemary Beach. This free community festival, which benefits Alaqua, is a fun-filled afternoon for 2- and 4-legged friends. Your dog can be a part of a variety of competitions – children’s handling, best trick, dog fashion show, and more. There will also be music, a bake sale, dance performances, and agility demonstrations. Pet adoptions will be held by Alaqua Animal Refuge and Happy Tails will be snapping what they call “Dog Pet-icures.” Support Rosemary Beach Unleashed by entering the 2013 Raffle, which includes a custom-designed dog house by Gallion Construction, 2-night stay and golf package from the Westin La Cantera Hill Country Resort, Pearl necklace from Arriaga Originals, 1-hour massage and facial from Cheveu Salon & Spa. Tickets are available at Patchouli’s – Rosemary Beach or online at www.rosemarybeachunleashed.com .