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A second chance: Saved from being euthanized, inmate-trained dogs ready for adoption

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Josh Terza, a tatted-up Woodstock man with a stocky build and vice-grip handshake, was sentenced recently to five years in Georgia prisons for trafficking methamphetamine. But that's not his chief concern today. Doggie jealousy is.

Locked up in Gwinnett County Jail since April, the doldrums of confinement were weighing on Terza until he was paired with "Mick" -- a 1-year-old Catahoula-Aussie mix with a salt-and-pepper face, a frenzied feather of a tail and a tipsy disposition.

They hit it off. The inner dog-trainer in Terza came out. But once Mick's tendency to jump on laps and yap at everything subsided, Terza had to take his skills elsewhere. This time to "Ramses," a full-blooded German shepherd named for the peace-loving Egyptian ruler.

A dog-inmate-dog triangle emerged.

"You get emotionally attached," Terza, 30, explained Friday in a jail yard, feeding Mick "good dog" treats from a pouch wrapped around his jail jumpsuit. "I feel like I'm cheating on my dog."

The first round of the life-saving experience that is Operation Second Chance, in the estimation of those close to it, has been a success. Experts have deemed the first five animals led through the inmate-training program -- Mick and pals that include Chow, Labrador and Anatolian mixes -- ready for adoption.

Each dog was scheduled to be euthanized weeks ago.

Instead, the animals have endured a sort of doggie boot camp behind bars, sleeping in cages near their inmate handlers and undergoing constant training. Leaders say the program is a win-win on all fronts, in that it literally saves the animals from death while giving inmates purpose and -- perhaps -- viable job training for their life on the other side.

James Wilson, a housing unit deputy, said he's noticed a "kinder, more patient" attitude among the 28 inmates chosen from 100 applicants to reside in the dog unit. Inmates accused of violent or sex crimes are weeded out in a screening process.

"In regular pods, (the inmates) like to play games," Wilson said. "In this pod, they actually police each other" in fear they'll loose the privilege to stick around, he said.

Only 11 fortunate pooches can be trained at one time. The sooner those are adopted, the quicker more in the Gwinnett County Animal Control euthanasia line can be cycled in, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais.

It's the first jail program of its kind in Georgia -- and likely the country, she said.

Professional trainers with Twelve Paws Canine Academy in Lawrenceville make volunteer visits to instruct inmates on proper training, even doling out "homework" assignments.

Adopted dogs come with built-in training worth about $1,500, said trainer Michael Louviere.

"They're really getting the same social skills they'd be getting in a home setting," he said.

The brainchild of dog lover Sheriff Butch Conway, the program is supported by the Society of Humane Friends of Georgia, who provide all necessary care, training, food and veterinary services for the dogs. Leaders stress that the cost to taxpayers is nil.

Society president Dennis Kronenfeld said adoption applicants are subject to a screening process that includes home visits. Candidates will be able to preview the dogs at the jail or area pet retailers, he said.

As for Terza, he hopes to be released in December, with credit for time served. He's mulling the idea of printing up some business cards, maybe marketing his dog-training skills to pet care chains like PetSmart.

For now, his four-legged compadres are a substitute for his family, he said.

"I got two kids I ain't been able to hug for a year," he said. "This brings you joy."