Addressing The Dog Food Issue.

This week, we’re in receipt of and reviewing another round of press releases about the possible correlation between feeding our dogs a grain-free diet and dilated cariomyopathy (DCM). In this set of press releases, the FDA released a cautionary list of grain free diets – based on their initial, inconclusive findings, thus far. The FDA report states that currently they cannot find a link between diet and DCM, but they wanted the public to know which grain-free foods the dogs diagnosed with DCM were eating. Important to note: the list is not a recall.

I am not a dietician or nutritionist. We have worked with our family veterinarian and with guidance, have experimented with various brands of dog food to find the right combination for our dogs. If you are concerned about the latest FDA reports, please consult first with your veterinarian before making any diet changes.

Many small, independent pet supply businesses research the products they sell before stocking the items. Naturally, this latest information is a great cause of concern for them as well, not only for the health and well-being of their customers’ pets (and their own, for that matter), but also for their bottom line . In this day of the internet and the massive amount of information we’re able to retrieve, be sure you read with an open mind. Be sure you read beyond the headlines; read the entire article. Discuss your concerns and findings with your veterinarian.

There have been some good points made from owners of independent pet supply businesses and we’d like to share some of them with you, here in one spot, The New Barker blog. Each post is long, however, each one includes some good food for thought (pun intended).

An excerpt from HealthePets Market, out of Jupiter, FL: “Out of the 77,000,000+ registered dogs in the United States a total of 524 dogs diagnosed with DCM ate grain-free diets. Of the 524 cases, a large percentage of the dogs diagnosed with DCM were breeds geneticially predisposed to the illness.”

Here is the link to the full post response from HealthePets Market. Here is the link to the full post response from Dog Krazy, Fredericksburg, VA. Here is the link to the full post response from The Green Spot, Omaha, NE. Here is the link to the full post response from All For The Pet, Severna Park, MD. And here is a 10 minute video from Tammy Sue Vasquez, co-owner of BarkLife Market and More, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, FL.

Is your dog healthy and doing well on his/her current diet? Don’t panic, but do consult with your veterinarian with any concerns.

 

 

In Dogs, Diabetes Is A Lifelong Condition.

by Anna Bannon, DVM for The New Barker dog magazine. Spring 2019.

As a veterinarian, there are two things I see on a daily basis that I wish I could change – that pet owners can change – obesity and dental disease. Obesity and dental disease are the silent killers of millions of pets across the US. In this article, I want to focus a little on obesity, and also one of the life threatening illnesses that often occurs secondary to obesity: diabetes.

Obesity is the leading health threat to our nation’s pet population. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) conducted research in 2016 concluding that over 50% of dogs and cats are overweight, and that obesity rates are rising annually. Not only does obesity shorten the lifespan of your pet, but it can lead to a plethora of illnesses that are not only expensive and painful to your pet, but can be fatal, including urinary tract disease, heart failure, liver disease, asthma, painful joint disease or disc disease, diabetes and more.

To determine if your pet is overweight, the best thing to do is ask your veterinarian, who will be very familiar with a scoring system called the Body Condition Score. This is something that you can learn as well. The animal Body Condition Score consists of three main factors: Ribs, Waist, and Hips. Can you feel (but not see) your pet’s ribs? Does your pet have a waistline? Can you feel the hip bones? Some breeds have slight variations on this, and sometimes it can be difficult to judge your own pet, but most veterinarians will make a note of this during every physical exam, so if you aren’t sure, just call your vet.

If your pet is overweight, then the remedy for that is actually quite straightforward: reduce the calories they get, and increase the exercise they receive. This means that you should take note of how much food they are regularly getting. Is it 1 cup twice daily? Is it a solo cup scoop that you fill part way? Is it a bowl of food that you fill every few days?

Step one is to actually figure out how much food they are eating per day and cut it back by at least one third. Step two is get out and move. Take your pet for a few extra walks per week, or throw the ball in the back yard for 15 minutes a day. Just get them moving and burning calories.

Now, the hard part: treats. I know, I know, it’s hard not to feed your pet treats. My Doberman just has to have some pizza crust everytime we get pizza, and you know what? I give it to her (gasp!). But I also have her on a set amount of kibble and I weigh her regularly to make sure she is maintaining a healthy weight. You are always welcome to bring your pet into your vet’s office to get weighed.

Some people are surprised to learn that animals can get diabetes. In fact, animals get many of the same illnesses that people get. Diabetes is a little different in animals, since there’s not really a “type 1” and “type 2” diabetes, like there are in people. In animals, when they become diabetic, they all need insulin replacement (with rare exception in some cats). This can be a difficult lifestyle change for a pet owner, and it can be expensive.

When an animal is diagnosed with diabetes, the treatment isn’t as straightforward as an injection twice a day. The difficult part is finding out how much of the injection to be given twice a day. Every animal is different, and if you give too much, you can cause them to go into a hypoglycemic shock (which can be fatal), but if you give too little, it’s not going to work well.

The body needs approximately a week to adjust to every change in insulin dose, so one of the reasons diabetes is expensive is because every time there is a dose change, a blood glucose curve needs to be performed. This is not as simple as one pin prick to get a blood sample, this is a full 12-24 hour curve, which means we need multiple samples taken throughout the day. This is not easy to do as a pet owner (though some owners learn how to get blood samples at home), and as a vet, keeping an animal in the hospital all day to get multiple blood samples can stress them out and even alter the results of the blood sugar.

With the exponential growth of technology and medicine, there are almost always new avenues to explore. There is a human medical device, called the FreeStyle Libre, that is being used to help regulate diabetes in animals. This product is a small round flat sensor that can stick to skin and has a tiny stylet that pokes just under the skin into the subcutaneous fat. This little painless sensor can read and record the glucose in the body, and is fairly accurate in animals. This device replaces the need to pull blood every hour and spend the day in the hospital. As an owner, all you have to do is scan the sensor with the FreeStyle Libre Reader every eight hours to record all the data from the previous eight hours. This sensor can last up to 10 days on your pet, and will give your veterinarian valuable information regarding the days and nights glucose curves. Plus, this is less expensive than having a blood glucose curve performed in the hospital. And it gives you up to 10 days worth of information. It’s a win-win. A lot of vets and pet owners aren’t aware of this new technology, but it can be lifesaving for pets who are difficult to regulate or for pets who don’t tolerate blood draw. If your pet is diabetic, ask your vet about using the FreeStyle Libre to get glucose curves.

Family Animal Hospital is located at 13141 Kings Lake Drive in Apollo Beach, Florida.
Dr. Anna Bannon and her Shih Tzu Mauve.

Dr. Anna Bannon graduated from the University of South Florida in 2007 and Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011. She worked in a private practice in the Tampa area for five years before opening her own practice, Family Animal Hospital.  She may be reached at 813.512.7336.

Our History With Dogs.

Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends and family. By 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

The relationship humans have had with “man’s best friend” is timeless. Our love of dogs is not a recent phenomenon. We just discovered a book in our home library that we inherited years ago. Pet Book was written by A. Barton, DVM in 1958, with illustrations by Lillian Obligado. It has everything from “Choosing Your Dog” to “Hairdo for Fido.” Below is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “A Permanent Bed for your Dog.”

“The bed doesn’t have to be fancy. All you need is a carton box that is big enough for your dog to move around in. Tear off one side of the box so that your dog can go in and out of as he pleases. If your dog likes the bed, he will not sit on the furniture.”

Among our many dog books is a gift from a friend, simply titled Dogs. It features hundreds of vintage photographs of dogs collected by photographer Catherine Johnson. In the book’s Afterword, William Wegman writes, “What is it about dogs and the camera? For amateurs and professionals alike, picture-taking begins with a special occasion. Dogs in the car, on top of a table or on the front porch with the family. Dogs like to perform.”

The legendary British photographer Norman Parkinson once said, “If you’re shooting a difficult family portrait, pray the family has a dog and feature that animal front and center.” He is absolutely right. Dogs do infuse photographs with energy and humor. So, we asked our readers to send in photographs of their own family dogs through the years. Here is just a sampling of the photographs we received.

Here are some photos of humans growing up with their dogs, sent to The New Barker from our readers. These photos were included as part of a feature in a 2013 edition of The New Barker, alongside some iconic images from the State Library & Archives of Florida.

From reader Karen Ekonomou of Vero Beach on the above photos: “Lucky, a white English Bulldog was my dad’s dog. This photo was taken in 1947. The other Bulldog is Spike, who was my babysitter up until I was seven. Finally, my best pal ever was Suzie Q. She shared everything with me including our favorite ice cream cones. She would sit with me all the way through the television shows I watched. This photo was taken in 1967.”

Melinda_Rose+UnclDog_Emmie_97
Reader Melinda Rose and her uncle’s dog Emmie – 1997.
Sammy_Carlene
From reader Carlene St John: “This is a picture of me with Sammy, our family dog, October 1971. I was 19 months old and insisted that Sammy could double as a horse. Although patient with my attempts, he never budged!”
The Cooke Family Dog.
Tippy and Sonny Cooke. 1947.

Below are some historical photos from the State Library & Archives of Florida.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Cats and dogs were an important part of life at Cross Creek, the Florida home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Here, she is seated with Moe, a faithful companion.
Heise's Pet Shop, Tampa.
Heise’s Pet Shop in Tampa, early 1900s. Quite possibly the first pet store in Florida.

HHSM Brownie, The Town Dog 8x10
Brownie could be Florida’s most historic and beloved dog. He has a dog park named after him in Daytona Beach, complete with a statue honoring him, which we visited in August 2018. His grave is one of the most visited dog memorials in the world. Brownie was a stray dog who lived in downtown Daytona Beach from 1939 until his death in 1954. He lived in a custom dog house, dined on steak and ice cream and even had his own bank account in the Florida Bank & Trust.  Read more about Brownie, the town dog of Daytona Beach.
By the way, the Dade City Heritage & Cultural Museum will convert to The Dade City Dog Museum on one Saturday of every month. Stay tuned. As a sponsor of the event The New Barker is looking for artisans to display their dog-themed artwork. The museum will include a historical look with displays of some of Dade City’s pioneers and the important role their dogs played. Interested artists, please send an email to anna@thenewbarker.com and include Dade City Dog Museum in the subject line, please.

Here are some more Florida dog photos from the State Library & Archives of Florida. 

It Is Better to be Outspoken, Than Unspoken.

by Anna Cooke, Editor, The New Barker dog magazine.

Michele Lazarow, Vice Mayor of Hallandale Beach, has played a big role in the movement to ban the sale of puppies and kittens in Florida retail stores. It is a movement that has taken hold in cities across the country.

Michele Lazarow
Michele Lazarow with her two dogs Honey and Gidget.

“Michele has been a huge part of this movement in Florida,” said Amy Jesse, Puppy Mills Policy Director at The Humane Society of the United States. “Passing these ordinances shuts off a huge supply chain for the puppy mill industry. We don’t like to draw generalizations that every single pet store is getting their puppies from mills. But, the vast majority do.”

Lazarow purchased a puppy from a Hollywood pet store about 14 years ago. Alfie had been marked down to $900, and he was chronically ill until he died at the age of 10 in May 2014. Lazarow’s heartbreaking experience both angered and inspired her. In 2011 she began a crusade to ban retail puppy sales in Hallandale Beach by first sending packets of information to City Commissioners. It wasn’t easy, but after a year, she was finally able to get a law on the books.

Lazarow’s aim is to protect the consumer who might not be aware of their rights under the state’s puppy “lemon” law. The statute provides legal recourse for consumers who buy cats or dogs that become ill or die shortly after purchase.

Early on, Lazarow was the face of this movement in Florida. “But now officials are doing this on their own,” she said. Having led protests outside pet stores, educated officials and counseled people who needed advice after coming home with a sick puppy, Lazarow’s dedication to the cause has won her both friend and foe.

Keith London, a City of Hallandale Beach Commissioner, said of Lazarow, “She’s speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. And, she’s effective. She went from being a total neophyte to getting ordinances passed in more than 40 Florida communities.”

Lazarow has helped lead the fight for most of those bans by talking behind the scenes with city officials, rallying local animal advocates to become involved, and speaking out at public meetings. She makes no apologies to her naysayers.
“I have advocated and educated colleagues in communities across Florida and helped pass legislation in over 50 cities and counties, saving residents heartache over sick and ill puppies while at the same time helping to stop massive animal cruelty,” she said. “I do this work all day, every day. I have devoted most of my time and energy to continuing this work.”

The next big issue in the upcoming 2019 Florida Legislative Session will be pet store lobbyists attempting, once again, to preempt local municipalities from puppy mill ordinances. “We’ll be ready,” said Lazarow.

Get Involved. For updates and information on animal advocacy issues in Florida, visit AllianceAnimalWelfare.org
Also, join Change Animal Welfare Laws in Florida and Beyond on Facebook for updates. During the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, consider attending Humane Lobby Day on March 12 in Tallahassee. You’ll learn more about the issues and how you can help.

Broken Down Angel

A true story as told by Lonnie Spell, dog trainer, to The New Barker contributor Pam Stuart.

A gun dog is trained to find game for the handler/hunter, point the game, and retrieve the game when sent to retrieve by the handler/hunter. These scent hunters locate and point birds (quail, pheasant, chucker, and other game birds). The term “gun dog broke” can be defined as: “the performance standard of perfect manners in the field: standing steady and pointing upon finding a bird, staying while the bird flies off, and going out on the retrieve only when sent by the hunter.”

It was Spring 2010. George, myself and some others were having a pleasant conversation in the shade of the hay barn on a Sunday afternoon. George Hickox, a top dog trainer and handler, had come down to Sunset, Louisiana to lead a seminar on training bird dogs. We had been talking about what we’ve seen as professional trainers in the dogs that come our way; the good and the not so good. George remarked that sometimes a dog is so badly affected by misguided attempts at training that it is of no use in the field.
“That dog is not gun dog broke, that dog is just broken.”

One of the seminar students was waiting for him, so George politely excused himself. That’s when someone I knew, particularly by his reputation, stepped up and asked me a question.
“Hey, Lonnie, you want that piece of crap?”

George’s observation about broken dogs might have been what tipped this other man’s hand. He had more than a few dogs he was cutting from his string. They hadn’t gotten with his program so they had to go. And there was that one dog in particular.

I had to say yes. It would have been easier to say no, but sometimes the easy thing is not always the right thing. And ‘no’ would mean that pup was destined to be dumped in an after-hours outdoor run at a kill shelter with all the other dogs. It wasn’t my job to make his dump at the shelter easier, but taking that dog would be the right thing. It would save a life. And I knew that dog.

That ‘piece of crap’ was once my girl Belle’s puppy. I knew the field blood running through his veins. That’s why I bred that litter. By a twist of fate, Belle’s pup ended up with this man, who was now ready to throw him away. He deserved better than the dump. They all did. They always do.

I had to work on Monday, so I made arrangements for my friend, Bobby, to go and fetch him up. The next day I went over to Bobby’s. He warned me, “It’s been about a year since you’ve seen this pup. A lot can happen in a year.”

As we walked out back, I saw him. He stood there in the middle of the kennel run, scared and confused. Everything about his body language shouted fear. His tail was tucked tight between his legs and his ears were tense and set back, as if he was waiting for the next bomb to explode. I stood there, staring in disbelief at the dog before me. This was not Belle’s bold pup. This dog was terrified; snakebit by life and barely holding on. Belle and I had him for only eight weeks. After that, he had been living what I would not want to imagine during so many important stages in his young life. He had been named Justin. I never wanted him to hear that name again.

On the ride back to my place, I remembered why I bred this litter and the hopes I had for the pups. This dog was born with the gift of extraordinary genetics, going back to a top field Pointer named Honky Tonk Attitude. One year later, I wondered how and if I could find, under all that fear, that confident, happy puppy. Would we, he and I, be able to find his Attitude?

I left him alone and kept interaction to a minimum for the first week. He needed to settle in to a new place. I needed to give him time to feel safe and secure. His run was cleaned. He got fresh water and good food. No explosions here, buddy. You can relax.

Relax. Easier said than done. My other dogs would see a squirrel running to the tree line and start barking. He would run and hide. Before, barking meant trouble. Trouble meant punishment. Punishment. Just for being a dog. His fear grew out of knowing punishment. Overcoming fear meant overcoming the hardship of bad experiences.

Punishment is different from correction. Punishment springs from a well of anger. Correction is not from that well of anger. Correction is right for the situation and right for what the dog knows. You cannot correct a dog for something you have not trained.

In training, a dog will learn what to do, and what not to do. Just like in life, mistakes are good. Only by making mistakes do you have the opportunity to learn and truly grow. If I was to comfort him while he was in this fearful attitude, I would only reinforce fearful behavior with what he would interpret as praise. I certainly couldn’t bully him into an attitude of boldness. That would not be boldness but him aggressively defending himself from bullying. He’d had enough of that.

Little things would set him on edge. If I simply held him by the collar, he would squint his eyes as if something bad were going to happen. But he didn’t fight. He never growled or protested. He had given up. What was he afraid of? Might this be reversed or, as George had said could happen, was this dog really broken? If life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived, would I be able to solve this mystery?

Dogs have their truth: tasks they were bred to perform and aptitudes by virtue of their temperament and personality. Dogs also have an honesty by living closer to their truth, without all the complications that we people layer on top of our own lives. Sometimes we can pile on so much of the stuff of life that we lose sight of our own truth; it’s buried so deep we can’t find it. Not for a dog. A dog’s going let you know. You just have to pay attention.

Because this dog was not ready for any formal training, I decided to just be with him without any demands or expectations, and try to establish a relationship without fear. If he showed any sign of relaxation or acceptance, it was my goal to reward that behavior. But I could not correct any unwanted behavior as that might cause him to shut down even further. He needed only encouragement for those little signs of hope, and no corrections for any missteps.

We spent our time together just walking. No talking. No sounds. He was still scared enough just being on a loose lead by my side. I clipped one end of the lead to his collar and the other to my belt. I did not want to chance an accidental correction or any kind of action on my part that would cause him to retreat back into himself. I would not risk losing the trust I was working so hard to gain.

Not talking to him may have seemed unkind by some folks. But this was not so. We speak through our body language and our disposition. Actions do speak louder than words. And attitudes speak louder than words. This was our time to listen to each other. His time to show me what and who he was, and mine to find out his truth.

One day, while putting water in his dish, he came up to the fence of his run and licked my fingers. This was a sign of hope I had been waiting for. Not only did he offer a behavior unasked, it was a behavior of submission, respect, and acceptance. A truce was being made.

He started showing more behaviors that gave me hope – licking, playing, wagging his tail, and even looking up during our walks. I would touch him softly, or scratch him on the head. On a walk one day, he started jumping and playing, if only a for few moments. He found joy in being a dog. And joy in being.

Later that fall, I went over to his run, and when he saw me he stood up, wagged his tail and made eye contact. The patch of color on his left eye had always reminded me of the dog in the Our Gang series. That dog’s name was Petie. This dog was now ready for his name. Hey, Petie. Nice to finally meet you.

In the early winter, the first real cold front had come through and there were good scenting conditions. Petie was running at about half speed down a tree line with a strong north wind blowing across his path, when he hit the scent of birds and slammed onto point. I stood back and didn’t say a word. Petie’s head and tail lifted and he stood as tall as his legs let him. At that moment, he didn’t need me. That moment was between him, his instincts, and the scent. He found more birds that day, and with each find he ran stronger, pointed, and stood taller and more confident. He found his passion. That day, running in that field, he had run into his truth. Petie had found his Attitude.

My friend, Bobby had been there from the beginning. He was a regular visitor at the training sessions, and together we enjoyed watching Petie run in the field. So it was a natural fit that I should give Petie to Bobby and his family.

In the Fall of 2012, Petie, at three years old, was at an age more right to expect mature, gun dog behavior. Petie was now gun dog broke, not broken. And he was a winner, placing in the ribbons at field events, and qualifying to run at the Regionals. Bobby got a call from a professional field trialer who wanted to buy Petie and take him to Nationals.

Bobby said no. Sure, the money would’ve been nice. But money comes and money goes. Petie stayed put in his now and forever home. In the mornings, he sits with Bobby’s wife as she drinks coffee on the porch. He takes naps in the afternoon with Bobby out back. And he goes hunting with Bobby and his son.

Petie was finally at home. And he was loved.

Confident Petie The styles of a hunting dog are a beautiful sight to see. The dog that points his chest high, tail immobile; the dog that bends over itself, pretzel-like as it catches scent behind itself in mid-stride; the dog that looks like a perfect right angle, with head lowered, caught at the bottom of its stride, frozen in place by the scent of its prey.


Learn More About Florida’s Humane Lobby Day in Tallahassee.

By Anna Cooke, Editor of The New Barker dog magazine.

What is Humane Lobby Day? It’s the biggest day of the year for animals and animal advocates. The annual national event is sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States. Citizen animal advocates gather, at the state level, to learn and practice lobbying protection laws in each state. The full-day event includes a lobbying workshop and an overview of relevant bills in your state legislature. Appointments are made for you with the legislatures who represent you. You will be given specific talking points for visiting with the legislators and/or their staff, face to face, and ask them for their animal-friendly votes.

When and where is Florida’s Humane Lobby Day? March 12, Florida State Capital; Challenger Learning Center, 200 South Duval Street, Tallahassee. 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (9a-Noon/workshop and lunch; 1p-4p appointments with legislatures).

What legislation will we be discussing? Two bills of particular interest to The New Barker dog magazine: Strengthening the penalty for killing a K9 Officer: SB 96, HB 67. And, puppy mills – specifically stopping the importation of puppies from puppy mills. Florida is one of the leading states importing puppies and kittens that are used to stock retail stores. There are about 65 ordinances in Florida currently banning the retail sales of cats/ dogs and this number is growing. However, the preemption bills that have been considered in the legislature would remove those 65 ordinances and prevent any future ordinances form being passed. So we are fighting the efforts to preempt pet retail sales bans and educate our legislators about this issue.  There has not been a preemption bill introduced yet this year, but the opposition (Petland) will likely try to amend it to a bill that’s moving, just as they did late in the session, last year.  We have defeated them for three years now and will continue to fight it. But many of our legislators are not aware of this important aspect of preemption.  This is why we need your vote and your voice.

What should I do to prepare? No prior experience is required to get involved. The goal of the workshop is to educate you on the bills and provide the support you’ll need to make the largest impact. It is helpful to know who your legislatures are before going into a meeting with them. Most elected officials have a website. Also check out these two nonpartisan political organizations, each one encouraging informed and active participation in government: League of Humane Voters – Florida Chapter and League of Women Voters – Florida Chapter.

Find your federal legislators at this link by typing in your zip code.

You may also want to read more about Petland’s attempts to stop the banning of puppy mill sales in pet stores at the local level. Chief lobbyist for Petland pushing for legislation that would strip Florida cities of their right to regulate local pet stores.

Can I partner with a friend so I’m not alone? It’s a great idea to bring friends and family to Humane Lobby Day. A large turnout creates a powerful voice for the animals.

What should I wear? Dress professionally to meet with legislators. A business suit or slacks/skirt and a jacket are appropriate. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes; bring an umbrella and a photo I.D.

RSVP Today by filling out this form. There is an $8 registration fee which will cover the cost of your lunch and materials.

This is an amazing opportunity to meet with like-minded people from across Florida; to learn about the issues and how you can make a difference. And then, to go out and visit with your representatives in their offices. We hope to see you there.


His Past Did Not Determine His Happiness.

 

Jason and Sugar Mama – the dog who saved his life.

This story first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2018 edition of The New Barker dog magazine in our Men Who Love Dogs series. by Anna Cooke

FIGHTING HATE WITH LOVE. The longer you’re in prison, the more hardened you become. “Suddenly, a dog in my life I learned how to control my anger. I was allowed to finally show emotion because it was with a dog,” said Jason Bertrand. “Sugar Mama meant love. She gave me hope while I was in prison. She gave me a reason to want to get out.”

Having been incarcerated since the age of 12, Jason spent most of his life in prison. “Being a good person is not easy when you’re used to being a bad person, and you think it’s easier to be bad. I’ve lived my life in a fight mode. It was easier to stop someone physically than to talk it through,” he said. “But, I don’t want to be that guy anymore. The world I grew up in, isn’t this world. It’s kind of like the Tarzan movie, where the world he grew up in wasn’t the real world.”

Jason was released from prison in December 2016. “I’m beating the odds,” he told us. We spoke with Jason and his wife Crystal over a cup of coffee, outside Cappuccino’s Fine Wine & Espresso Bar in Dunedin in September 2018. We met Sugar Mama, the dog who helped Jason change his attitude and turn his life around while still in prison. They were introduced by the TAILS program.

TAILS (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills) is a collaborative effort that brings together prison inmates and hard-to-adopt shelter dogs. Through partnerships with Northeast Florida shelters and the State of Florida Correctional System, dogs are placed in correctional facilities to be trained, socialized and cared for. The program was developed by First Coast No More Homeless Pets, now operated by Pit Sisters, a Jacksonville-based 501c3 organization that finds foster and permanent homes for hard-to-adopt dogs. Members of the Pit Sisters team assess at-risk dogs at the shelters to select candidates for the TAILS program, matching them with inmates signed up for the program. Pit Sisters also provides transport of the dogs to the correctional facilities.

“TAILS benefits dogs, trainers, families, prison staff and the entire community,” said Jennifer (Jen) Deane, founder and executive director of Pit Sisters. Sugar Mama had been confiscated in a raid to break up a dog fighting ring. She ended up at Putnam County Animal Control. Jason was at the Jacksonville Bridge Community Release Center, a transitional program, when Jen brought Sugar Mama there in April 2016.

When Jason first laid eyes on Sugar Mama, and was told her story, he was filled with a lot of different emotions, all at once. “Here is this dog, with scars and a broken back, recovering from surgery, and she’s smiling and wagging her tail,” said Jason. “I asked myself, why am I so angry? If this dog, with what she’s been through, can be happy, why couldn’t I be happy?”

As he sat with Sugar Mama at their first TAILS meeting, Jason also wondered what kind of person could do this to an innocent being? What kind of person could be so cruel and selfish and intimidating? “Then, I realized that the person I was describing was someone like me. I had been that kind of person.”

He breaks down easily at the memories of hurting the people he loved through his behavior; scaring people – the victims of his crimes. “Just when I think I’m over the tears, every time they come, I’m surprised by them. Prison made my heart calloused and hard. I shut down my emotions and became the kind of man that other men are afraid of. You’re either scared and victimized, or you’re tough. I was dangerous, because I felt that I had needed to be. And that’s how I lost myself. Sugar Mama gave me back my humanity. She melted my heart.”

The reality is, rehabilitation at the Department of Corrections doesn’t exist. In 2018, the Florida Legislature passed and Governor Rick Scott signed an $87 million budget that was $28 million short in prison funding. To close the gap, the Florida Department of Corrections began eliminating programs that prepare inmates for their return to the community. One of those recently closed was Bridges of Northeast Florida, the transitional program that Jason was in when he met Sugar Mama, almost two years ago.

The goal of the TAILS program is to have the inmates train and socialize the dogs, readying them for adoption to families outside the prison system. After the eight-week program of living with and caring for the dogs, they are taken from the inmates, who know this going into the program. Jason knew it. When he finished the program with Sugar Mama, he would have four months left in the transitional program before being released into society. Four months without her. The rest of his life without her, if she was adopted by someone else.

There have been occasions when an inmate is able to adopt the dog they’ve been paired with in the TAILS program. A family member must be available to take in and foster the dog until the inmate is released from prison. “Jason approached me about adopting Sugar Mama,” Jen told us over the phone. “But, he didn’t have family to send her to; he didn’t even have a home. He told me he would live under a bridge if it meant keeping her with him. She was that critical to his humanity.”

“I had to have her in my life,” said Jason. “She was the first living and breathing being I had ever had unconditional love for. And she reciprocated that love.” Jen went to the Community Release Center’s supervisor on Jason’s behalf. “We both saw the changes, not only in Jason, but Sugar Mama. We agreed that without Sugar Mama, Jason would most likely end up back in the prison system,” said Jen. “We made an exception and let Sugar Mama stay with him until his release, four months later.”

What makes the TAILS program unique is that it is not funded by the Department of Corrections. “Our program is the one vehicle that helps the inmates transition. We pair hardworking guys with positive reinforcement training that gives them experience and discipline, making them more employable when they’re released. They receive certificates from the program,” said Jen. “While we’ve seen a decline in recidivism, we’re working with a professor at the University of North Florida who is helping us pull those numbers together and quantify the benefits of the program. TAILS has been in existence for three years and all of the dogs have been adopted. Zero percent have been returned to the shelter,” said Jen.

The TAILS program teaches inmates how to be responsible. “It’s about being part of a team. It’s about showing up when you’re supposed to,” said Jason. “Yes, it’s about getting up at 5am to put food in the dog’s bowl, but that’s just the superficial level. It’s a lot deeper than that.”

Jason has a lot going for him now, including a good job working as a technician for a heating and air conditioning company. He has a family – Crystal, Sugar Mama and the couple’s other dog, Emma, a Jack Russell Terrier. He has a home and a car. It’s the first time in his life he’s putting the needs of others before himself. He’s also become a spokesperson for TAILS, traveling to the facilities that have the program to talk to inmates.

When speaking to a group of inmates, the first thing Jason tells them is his DOC number, so they know he was an inmate. “It’s a way of letting them know that I am no different from them. Inmates don’t care what the free world thinks. Sharing my DOC number helps break the ice. I want them to know that there is life after prison.”

While in Tallahassee, Jason listened to an inmate speak. “He had a tough guy presence; acted like he didn’t care about anything. Just then, one of the TAILS dogs walked over to the inmate and nudged his hand. Instinctively, the guy started petting the dog, as he continued to talk. And, I had to stop him to point out what was happening. I told him that, right there, that was an act of unconditional love and kindness towards him. I reminded the group to never minimize any experience.”

It costs $300 for a dog to go through the TAILS program. When sponsoring a dog, you’ll be able to choose your dog for the program and receive updates about the dog you are sponsoring.You’ll be invited to attend graduation where you’ll meet your sponsored dog, along with the trainers and the new adopters.

“Never minimize any experience.” Jason Bertrand with Sugar Mama.

For more information on TAILS, contact Jennifer Deane, Founder/President and Executive Director of Pit Sisters for more information. Email Jen Deane at jen@PitSisters.org Jen is also a Regional Director for the Miami Coalition Against Breed Specific Legislation. Since 1989, it has been illegal in Miami-Dade County to own or keep American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers or any other dog that substantially conforms to any of these breeds’ characteristics. More info on TAILS at: PitSisters.org/Tails Miami Coalition Against BSL: MCABSL.com