Pit bulls and Parolees dogs attend OCI College

OKEECHOBEE — As one chapter ends, a new one begins, and such is the case for the Pawsitive Direction Program at the Okeechobee Correctional Institute (OCI). On Nov. 8, they held a graduation ceremony for the dogs who have completed their training, and Nov. 15, a new group of dogs began their training. This group makes up the 13th session, and according to program director Nicole Arndt, the dogs will graduate fully obedience trained, AKC canine good citizen ready, and/or bachelors, masters or PHD in canine life and social skills, therefore giving them a better opportunity for adoption. The program gives both dogs and handlers a second chance. “It is our hope that the handlers will be able to use the skills they learn with us when they are released and find gainful employment,” she said.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
On Friday morning, everyone involved in the OCI dog training program anxiously waited to meet, Ms. Torres, who was bringing four dogs to join the program for the new session. Pictured in the front row are:
Anthony Davis with Batman, Jeremy Palacio with Asha, Ramiro Bermudez, Tia Torres with Mr. Man, Cameron Everett with Julio, Rene Velasco with Schmill.
Back row:
Dana Ortiz, Nicole Arndt, John Wakefield, Jean Altidor with Jones (1st chair), Justin Ray with Midas (2nd chair), Walter Roberts with Ronnie (3rd chair), Kahari Graham (standing behind Walter Roberts), Richard Valdez (4th chair), Cesar Rivero with Asher McMushy (5th chair), Jeffery Bethel (standing behind Cesar Rivero), Christopher Bosworth with Robin (6th chair).

This year, they are excited to announce the Pawsitive Direction Program will be partnering with the Villalobos Rescue Center of New Orleans, known for their Pit Bulls and Parolees television show. Tia Torres has always had a love for animals, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that she developed her first relationship with a pit bull.

At that time, Ms. Torres already ran a rescue for wolves and wolf hybrids, but soon pit bulls became her focus. She began taking on parolees who had trouble finding work anywhere else, and it wasn’t long before she became famous for her work with pit bulls and parolees. In October of 2009, the show Pit Bulls and Parolees debuted on the Animal Planet, and in 2012, the family along with 200 dogs, assorted animals and all the people who work with them moved from California to Louisiana. Ms. Torres’ family includes her two daughters Tania and Mariah and adopted twin sons Kanani and Moe and their wives Lizzie and Mariah, all of whom help in the rescue.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Anthony Davis is pictured with Batman

Officer Wells explained this is the fourth year the Okeechobee Correctional Institute has participated in the dog training program, and she has nothing but good to say about it. It’s a form of responsibility that helps the men prepare for when they get out, she said, and it helps them pass the time. The men are paired up with the dogs in teams of two handlers per dog, and the dogs stay with them all the time, even sleeping next to their bunks. Both men help train, clean and care for their dog. They alternate bathroom breaks, and anything else the dogs need, she said. It helps a lot in case one of the men leaves, gets out or something, they have a back up to care for the dog, she said.

Ms. Arndt said they have a couple men who have been with the program for quite a while and those men really know what they are doing now. They help train the new men coming into the program, and of course, she has Dana Ortiz, the training director, who goes out there to work with them. Ms. Ortiz does all the training for the organization, and Ms. Arndt does everything else. When they go out to OCI, they ask the guys if they have any questions or issues and if so, Ms. Ortiz jumps in to work with them.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Cameron Everett is pictured with Midas.

Loxahatchee Animal Rescue Community (LARC) has been a rescue since 2014, and the Pawsitive Direction Program with OCI which is a part of LARC, started in 2016. Ms. Arndt started the rescue because she needed a purpose in her life after a medical condition forced her to stop working, she said, and then in 2015, someone found a near-dead puppy next to a dumpster near her legal services business. The woman’s employee put out on Facebook that they needed help, and Ms. Arndt said she would take the puppy. When they met at a vet to pick up the puppy, the employee told her that her boss was interested in starting a prison program. Ms. Arndt let her know that was something she was interested in as well, and the two women met and compared notes. Right before they met, the other woman, named Denise, heard from OCI, asking if she was still interested in starting a program, and seven months later, they started.

Recently, Ms. Torres made a post on the Villa Lobos page asking for existing prison programs to partner with, and it came across Ms. Arndt’s newsfeed, so she sent Ms. Torres an email. Ms. Torres replied and said they stood out to her because they are bully breed focused, and of course the Villalobos Rescue Center is Pit Bull focused. They corresponded and spoke on the phone, and the next thing Ms. Arndt knew, a partnership was begun. When she heard they were coming, she thought they would send staff members, so she was very excited to hear Ms. Torres was coming in person to bring the dogs. Originally, they were planning to tape an episode of the show there, but that did not work out for Friday. She is still hopeful that it might happen some time in the future though.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Christopher Bosworth is with Robin.

Normally, training sessions are three months, but sometimes they are extended if there is some reason for it. Last session, they trained a dog for a student from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School shooting, and that took some extra time. They wanted to be sure the dog had as much training under his belt as possible.

Jean Altidor is one of the handlers, and his dog Jones is going through training for the second time because he has not been adopted yet. Mr. Altidor said Jones is 5 years old, passed his training and did an awesome job. The first time around, he learned basic obedience, but this time, Mr. Altidor plans to teach him some tricks.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Dana Ortiz (Program Training Director), Jeffery Bethel, and Tanya Fleming (gray shirt) are with new arrival Asha.

Richard Valdez is Asher’s handler, and Asher has been through the program before as well. Asher is only 18 months old, and Mr. Valdez said Asher loves to be the star. Mr. Valdez enjoys working with the dogs and considers it a form of therapy.

Christopher Bosworth trains Robin, and she is very well-trained, he said. “She is a really good dog, She just needs a home.”

Midas will be trained by Cameron Everett. He is just starting his training but seemed eager to begin. Mr. Everett said he loves training the dogs and feels it has been good for him. “It makes the time more pleasant and keeps me busy, keeps me out of trouble.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Cesar Rivero is with Asher McMushy in the foreground.

Anthony Davis will be training Batman AKA Lumpy. This is Mr. Davis’ third time bringing a dog through the program and he enjoys working with them.

Ms. Ortiz said she trains the guys. They try to pair up an experienced man with an inexperienced one so he can help the new guy learn the ropes. They also have a ton of books to get them started. When she comes in, they bombard her with questions. She used to teach with the goal of passing a test, but she found the men worried too much about the test. They stressed over it constantly. She decided to stop worrying about the test and teach everyday life and the test would just fall into place, and it did. She tries to teach them the same way she teaches her clients on the outside. The guys love to teach them tricks too, she said, but she told them obedience training has to come first. “Are your dogs running off to join the circus? They need obedience. Obedience is what will get them adopted,” she said. “After they master that, then they can work on tricks.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Walter Roberts with Ronnie in the foreground.

When Ms. Torres arrived with the four new dogs, it took some time to allow the new dogs to adjust to the large group of people staring at them and the new environment, but soon they were happily cozied up to their new friends, and Ms. Torres explained to everyone that she told all the dogs she was bringing them to college which she said is her code word for prison dog program. One of the dogs she brought, Julio, was the subject of much conversation. Ms. Torres claimed poor Julio was quite a handful, but all we saw was a wonderfully well-behaved dog, the entire time she was there. It was as if he set out to make a liar of her and succeeded completely, but Ms. Torres said Julio needed college because he was pretty rambunctious. As she spoke, Julio sat there and watched her with his head on the knee of his new handler, and occasionally he looked up at his new friend, as if to ask, “Can you believe her?”

Not only did Ms. Torres travel with the four dogs she was delivering to college, but she also brought along her own personal dogs for the trip. She describes her dogs as, “the worst of the worst.” Her dogs are hounds, and she challenged the handlers at OCI to allow her to bring some hounds to the program one day. She said she has been a pit bull person for a long time, but about five years ago, she was introduced to hounds. Being a pit bull person from LA, she figured, no problem. “I got this.” She thought hound dogs were so cute, with heir little floppy ears, and their howl, but then she had to live with one. “Hound dogs, from beagles to coon dogs make the most experienced dog handlers look like the biggest idiots,” she said. “They make fools out of you because they just don’t care about you or your feelings.” It has taken them two years to teach her dog Jethro to sit, and he still won’t sit for her. She joked that when the four pit bulls got out of the van, they were thinking, “That was the longest 12 hours of our life.” As her dog Jethro howled loudly beside them.

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Jeremy Palacio with Robin in the foreground.

Ms. Torres created a program called the Underdog Prison Program to generate donations to spread amongst the prison dog programs “dog colleges” she works with, she said. Ms. Arndt gave her a list of things they could use in the program like doggie treats and Ms. Torres will buy those things and send them back to OCI to help offset the costs the facility incurs, or Ms. Arndt pays. People that watch her television show want to help, and this is a way they can do that, she said. The Villalobos Rescue Center is now the largest pit bull rescue center in the country with approximately 400 dogs. It costs an estimated $100,000 per month to run and is supported through donations and with Ms. Torres’ salary from the television show Pit Bulls and Parolees. The Villalobos website is vrcpitbull.com.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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