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Best Friends Furever

Featured Photo from Best Friends Furever

Seminole County’s new BFF 100 program helps high schoolers earn community service hours by training and fostering shelter dogs.

Alyssa Case needed to earn 100 service hours toward a Florida Bright Futures scholarship. Louis required lots of love, walks, and basic obedience training. It was a match made in doggie heaven.

Alyssa, a rising senior at Lake Mary High School, and Louis, a shelter dog, both got what they needed, thanks to a new program offered by Seminole County Animal Services called BFF 100. The BFF, in this case, stands for Bright Futures Foster, and the program gives Seminole County high schoolers the opportunity to earn their community service hours by fostering and training a shelter dog.

The teens foster the dogs in their homes and take them to training classes at Dogs Unlimited in Longwood. Students must also write a report detailing what they and the dogs got out of the fostering experience.

Alyssa was thrilled to find a program that allowed her to earn all her volunteer hours at once, rather than earning a few here and there. Louis’s obedience and crate training took patience and perseverance, but the effort was well worth it.

“He was a big, goofy puppy, and he was fun to be around,” Alyssa says. “It never felt like a chore taking him to training.”

Alyssa and Louis, plus two other student-canine pairs, were the first graduates of BFF 100. Joining them were Gabi Pardo and her foster dog Wendy, and Bradley Martin and Snoopy.

After the pilot program ended in late March, Alyssa kept Louis at her home until another family adopted him. Bradley, who graduated from Seminole High in May, returned Snoopy to the shelter, where the hound mix was adopted. And Gabi, another rising senior, chose to adopt Wendy, a Labrador retriever-basset hound mix, herself.

“At first, Wendy was very shy and she always had her tail between her legs,” says Gabi, who also has a mini-Yorkie named Tinkerbell. “Now, she runs around the house, and she’s very comfortable and happy. It was really fun seeing how she progressed.”

Although Alyssa knew her foster dog was leaving to go to a highly-recommended forever home, saying goodbye was still tough.
“It was so hard,” she says. “My mom and I were crying so much.”

Alyssa’s mom, Anita, agrees, adding that her family didn’t realize how attached they would get to Louis, a Plott hound mix.

“We fell head-over-heels in love with him,” Anita says. “He became part of our lives, and we thought about him 24-7.”

Program coordinator Diane Gagliano says that’s exactly the type of loving environment these shelter dogs need. Seminole County Animal Services matches the dogs with the students, provides food, a crate, and any necessary medical care.

“All we ask is that the foster families give their time, love, and training,” Diane says.

The BFF 100 program – the brainchild of Seminole County Animal Services administrator Carole Coleman – continues to be a big success. Five sets of students and dogs graduated from the second session, and four pairs of teens and pooches completed the third session.

The program is open to students ages 16 to 18, and each session is limited to six pairs of teens and dogs. Although the students are the primary caregivers, parental permission and involvement is required. Students foster the dogs for about eight weeks, which includes time for everyone to get acquainted before obedience classes begin.

Therese Dickinson, who owns Dogs Unlimited, provides six weeks of basic training at no cost. Typically, students attend the first week of class without the dogs and then bring the pooches for the next five weeks, during which time they work on loose-leash walking and fundamental commands such as sit and stay.

Diane says the teens leave the program with much more than their service hours. The students also learn important life lessons about commitment, compassion, and time management.

“It’s not just about them,” says Diane. “They have the responsibility for a living creature.”

And because of the care and training the dogs receive, the pooches become better companions and thus more appealing to potential adoptive families.

Gina Bensfield of Longwood adopted Static, a young pitbull lab mix, after he graduated from the BFF 100 program’s second session. Static was fostered by Ren Downs, a rising senior at Hagerty High.

When Gina saw a photo of Static on the shelter’s website, she was struck by how much he resembled her 13-year-old pitbull, who died late last year. Gina was so taken with Static that she and her kids watched a couple of his training sessions while Static and Ren were still in the BFF 100 program. Because Ren had gotten to know Static so well, the teen  was able to give Gina’s family helpful insight about the dog’s personality.

Static is now making himself right at home with Gina, her husband and kids, and their goldendoodle.

“He was definitely a good find,” says Gina. “I felt like the stars were aligning a little bit. It was meant to be.”

The next session of the BFF 100 Program is scheduled to start on July 18. For more details or to participate, email Diane at DGagliano@SeminoleCountyFL.gov or call 407-665-5208.

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