Hardee Correctional inmates help greyhounds transition from track to home

Inmate trainers learn new skills while helping canine athletes adjust to life after racing.

He used to run around the track at speeds near 40 mph, his dark brindle fur looking like a black flash as he sprinted past his competitors.

Over the course of two years, the greyhound O'Ya Spunky competed in 112 races, coming in first place 38 times and second place 24 times. This earned him the distinguished status of Grade-A racer. Then, in September 2016, O'Ya Spunky suffered an injury on the track that forced his retirement from racing.

O'Ya Spunky, now known as Spunky, became the newest member of our family last month. But his first destination off the track wasn't our home. On Dec. 16, 2016, Spunky was sent to the Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green.

A state prison might seem an unusual place for a dog, but greyhounds have been common at Hardee Correctional since 2012.

Spunky took part in the 24th session of Hardee Hero Hounds program, which was started by Joanne and Ken Wuelfing, co-founders of the Greyhound Advancement Center.

The Wuelfings work with Bay Area Greyhound Adoptions and Gold Coast Greyhound Adoptions to bring retired, adoptable greyhounds into the Hardee Hero Hounds program. Since the program started in 2012, more than 350 greyhounds have graduated, helping them transition to life off the track.

For eight to 10 weeks, up to 16 greyhounds live at Hardee Correctional, where they learn basic obedience from inmate trainers. Some dogs are in training to become therapy and service dogs.

During this time, the inmate trainers take around-the-clock responsibility for their greyhounds, providing care, food, exercise, socialization and training. In return for training greyhounds, the inmate trainers learn job skills and are eligible to receive a certificate issued by the Florida Department of Corrections.

There are four certifications — handler, basic trainer, intermediate trainer, and advanced trainer. Each certification level requires about 20 weeks to complete, and it takes almost two years to complete the entire curriculum.

At the end of each training session, a special graduation ceremony is held at Hardee Correctional where inmate trainers and greyhounds demonstrate their skills in front of an audience. The inmate trainers take great pride in their greyhound's performance, vying to win the award for top dog.

Before the graduation ceremony begins, all greyhound adopters are given the opportunity to speak with their greyhound's inmate trainer to learn about their dog. Adopters are also given a journal that chronicles their greyhound's training progress from week one.

It's clear from spending time with the inmate trainers — one of whom has worked with 11 dogs — how passionate these men are about the program.

They speak of how it centers them, teaches them patience and responsibility, changes their lives.

The inmates learn from a professional dog trainer, books, and educational articles. They receive a certificate for completing all four levels of training.

After the greyhounds graduate, they leave Hardee Correctional Institution with their adoptive families and a new group of retired greyhounds arrives.

Spunky has been a wonderful addition to our family of four. He is well-mannered, gentle and loves to greet everyone. So far, all he wants is our affection and a soft, comfy spot to rest.

This sweet greyhound has already raced into our hearts.

For more information about the Hardee Hero Hounds program, or adopting a greyhound, visit greyhoundadvancementcenter.org or bayareagreyhounds.org.

Contact Danielle Hauser at [email protected]