The 3-year-old mixed-breed dog named Pippi was on her way home.

 

And everyone she left behind was on the verge of tears.

“Look at her, she’s smiling,” said Lindsay Hargett, as she and other volunteers at Doc Tony’s TAILS Training and Adoption Center in Mandarin watched Pippi staring back at them from her adoptive family’s car as it pulled away.

The tears then flowed.

To witness such happy endings — seven months ago Pippi was in a crowded shelter and facing euthanasia — is why they do what they do. Since the center opened one year ago, they have watched 132 at-risk shelter dogs arrive for some love, care and training and ultimately adoption.

“That’s what my vision was for this place,” said Jen Deane, founder and executive director of Pit Sisters, the rescue group that runs the center. “She would have never had a chance. We knew time would help her decompress a bit and it worked.”

Pit Sisters was founded six years ago by Deane, a certified dog trainer, and her sister as an animal-rescue group that focused on pit bull-type dogs.

The group now advocates for all “misunderstood” dogs and in 2012 took over the eight-week TAILS training program from First Coast No More Homeless Pets. In the TAILS program — Teaching Animals & Inmates Life Skills — inmates from state prisons, county jails or transitional programs train at-risk shelter dogs to make them adoptable.

The group opened the center last November, which is named after donor “Doc Tony” Crothers, a local chiropractor and animal-rescue supporter. He helped get the center open and donates to the operating fund every year as well.

“We would have never been able to have it without him,” Deane said.

The center is home for TAILS-bound shelter dogs before they enter the program and for TAILS graduates who are still looking for permanent homes. It is also a safe haven for other at-risk shelter dogs that are deemed adoptable — but not the right fit for the TAILS program — or dogs Pit Sisters rescues from animal-cruelty or dog-fighting cases.

Deane plucked Pippi from Clay County Animal Services, where she said the dog was being passed over by prospective adopters because she was “a jerk in her kennel.” But Deane saw potential behind the misbehavior.

In June, Pit Sisters took in 11 dogs from the Ontario ASPCA. The dogs were among 31 seized in a Canadian dogfighting investigation two years ago or were puppies born to dogs rescued following that seizure. Also, in September the center took 20 of 107 dogs impounded in August in a Polk County, Ga., cruelty case. In both cases, the dogs were evaluated by Jim Crosby, a Jacksonville-based expert in canine behavior who has long worked with Pit Sisters.

On the same day Pippi went to her new home, five of the Canadian dogs were taken from the center to the Lawtey Correctional Institution to begin the TAILS program there.

One was a 2-year-old ball of energy called Munchkin. Before departing for Lawtey, he ran around the grassy area adjacent to the center, with a stuffed toy in his mouth, followed by a volunteer holding his leash. Eventually, he stopped running long enough to tear the stuffed toy to shreds.

“He’s full on,” Deane said. “He can’t have nice things. He tears them up.”

His TAILS trainer will work to rein in that energy, she said.

Another Canadian dog that was TAILS-bound that day was 2½-year-old Kali, who was born after the seizure. But Kali was fearful when a volunteer took her outside the center. She huddled at a center door, as if she wanted to go back in.

After watching her behavior, Deane ultimately decided to delay her TAILS entry for another day. “I am not going to force her, that’s the worst thing you can do,” she said. “She’s not ready yet.”

Deane and 20 or so regular volunteers get to know the dogs, taking note of their temperaments, personalities, fears and loves and share the information with each other. They marvel at how dogs abused and neglected by their previous human owners, such as the Canadian and Georgia crews, come to trust their human caretakers at the center.

“These dogs are special. They have been through so much, [in] horrible situations,” said volunteer Marcy Mark. “It is so rewarding … seeing them come out of their shell. It is a pretty amazing feeling.”

Dione Garnand is founder of The Jed Fund, which provides financial support to animal welfare organizations that work to save the lives of homeless dogs and cats. She has supported Deane’s efforts and volunteers at the center.

“There would be a lot more euthanization if not for the TAILS center taking dogs from kill shelters,” she said. At the center, they experience safety and love, in some cases for the first time, and receive training and socialization to help make them more adoptable, she said.

“It’s kind of a halfway house” between shelters and adoption, Garnand said. “It has really filled a void.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359–4109