Suzanne Lavallee and Sherri Fullen adopted Boomer last month through the Prison Pups & Pals program, which pairs dogs with inmate trainers.
BY MIKE CAVALIERE | ASSOCIATE EDITOR
Suzanne Lavallee and Sherri Fullen wanted a 30-pound dog. But then they met Boomer. And all of a sudden, size didn’t matter so much anymore.
“Suzanne always has to have a dog that laughs and smiles, and Boomer laughs and smiles.” Fullen said, as Boomer, a 15-month-old pit bull breed, wiggles on his back, and then hops onto the couch to drape his body over top of it and eye workers in the backyard.
They say it’s the dog’s goofiness that attracted them. They call him the “Ha-Ha Boy.”
Fullen and Lavallee’s adoption had a few extra steps, however, since Boomer was a member of the Prison Pups and Pals program, which partners dogs from the Halifax Humane Society and the West Volusia Kennel Club with inmates from the Tomoka Correctional Institution Work Camp, who train them. (The inmates can't be violent offenders, have a history of animal abuse or have more than 10 years left on their sentence.)
But the prison element never bothered these two Ormond Beachers.
“That aspect didn’t scare me at all,” said Lavallee, a former prison nurse practitioner.
“We actually looked at the other dogs and weren’t interested,” Fullen added.
The dogs are also spayed/neutered, kept up to dates on all shots and micro-chipped in the program. After adoptions, families get seven free training sessions outside of the jail, as well.
To meet Boomer and attend his Pups and Pals graduation, Fullen and Lavallee had to get prison clearance. That’s where they met Pups and Pals Coordinator Gail Irwin.
“Even though another family had put an adoption hold on (Boomer), a few weeks went by, and the family that originally wanted to adopt (him) had lost their home due to a flood,” Irwin said. “Boomer was a little bigger of a dog than they planned, but he wiggled his way into their hearts, and now they can’t live without him!”
But the dog graduation was more powerful than Fullen was expecting.
“Some of the prisoners were actually pretty emotional when they had to give the dogs up.” she said.
Fullen and Lavallee were also given a diary written by Boomer’s two caretakers “inside," which helped reinforce the benefits of this program. The inmates get responsibility and affection, Lavalee said; the dogs come out well-behaved; and the adopting families get paired with the right animal.
The program also boasts a 100% adoption rate.
“It’s a win-win situation,” she said. “You’ve got to figure: A lot of these prisoners didn’t have the upbringing with unconditional love, like they have with the dog.”
Some prisoners even talked at the graduation about how their time with the dog changed their lives and how some now plan to pursue careers in animal care after their release.
Lavallee and Fullen only moved to Plantation Bay, in Ormond Beach, in December, but they’re lifelong animal lovers. Lavallee even used to take in stray cats when she was a little girl.
“They’re just so loving and loyal,” she said of pets. “Not a mean bone in their body, really — unlike humans.”
The program connects dogs with veterans, as well.
"When I began as program coordinator, I had a yearning to give back," Irwin said. "My dream came true. Our Paws of Freedom program has given out 32 canines to veterans with PTSD, depression, or anxiety conditions! How cool is that?"
For more on Prison Pups and Pals, which started in 2010, call 254-2676, or email [email protected].