By Amanda Hatfield Anderson
INDIALANTIC -- Virginia Hamilton has always believed in giving back to her community through service.
The gifted teacher at Indialantic Elementary School founded the Canine Commandos 10 years ago, after brainstorming a new service project to do with her students.
"I founded Canine Commandos because community service used to be required on the student's gifted educational plan," Mrs. Hamilton said. "We used to do canned food drives, which are needed, but I wanted to do something with the kids that would be memorable and sustainable."
While watching Animal Planet one day, Mrs. Hamilton heard an obedience trainer say that, often times, some dogs in shelters are overlooked, due to lack of training, jumping on their kennel doors and barking.
"He said that, with just a few minutes each day, we can change their behaviors to increase their chances for adoption," Mrs. Hamilton added.
With that, Canine Commandos was born. Ten years after its founding, Mrs. Hamilton's organization now has 18 schools training dogs at local animal shelters, in the hopes that they will be more appealing to potential adopters.
This past August, Mrs. Hamilton was named a finalist for the Women in the Pet Industry Network's Woman of the Year Award. The networks recognizes women in five pet business categories -- "Solopreneur," "Entrepreneur," "Corporation," "Advocate" and "Rising Star."
Mrs. Hamilton was nominated in the "Advocate" category for her work with the Canine Commandos. She joined 24 other women, nominated by the organization for "Woman of the Year."
"The schools that we have involved rotate daily to provide consistent training," Mrs. Hamilton said. "An example of this would be that my class would train on Mondays, leave comment cards on the dog's cages and the next day, another school will go in and continue to train those dogs."
On the cards, students write down what commands -- "sit," "down," "stay," "come" -- the dog succeeded doing, as well as the personality of the dog.
"The shelters, South Animal Care Center and the Central Brevard Humane Society, help identify which dogs the students, all elementary and now, not only gifted, but general and exceptional education, can handle," Mrs. Hamilton said. "Our hopes are that these dogs find a home, so that we can begin training new ones."
Along with the 24 other finalists, Mrs. Hamilton was recognized during the Woman of the Year Award ceremony held on Aug. 24 in Portland, Ore. While she did not attend the actual ceremony, due to the school year just beginning here in Brevard, Mrs. Hamilton was grateful to have been nominated.
"The Pet Industry Women of the Year Awards were designed to recognize the amazing females, who dedicate their time and talents to improving the lives of all pets -- dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses and exotics -- and their parents," said Shawna Schuh, president of WIPIN in a press release. "The awards are a celebration of women, who have devoted their lives to the pet industry and shine, as beacons of women helping women and pets with passion. Virginia Hamilton is a perfect example!"
As the founder of Canine Commandos, Mrs. Hamilton is in charge of coordinating the schools where they volunteer, making sure all of the proper paperwork is turned in to the shelters, ordering shirts, planning the year-end expo, as well as serving as a liaison between the schools and the shelters and teaching her own students how to train the dogs.
"Two other school's teachers are comfortable with teaching their own kids how to train," Mrs. Hamilton said. "Otherwise, Joyce Jellison of All Things are Pawsible teaches the other schools how to train. She helps keep the safety and integrity of the program intact and has been with us going on four years now."
While not named the winner of WIPIN's Woman of the Year award, Mrs. Hamilton is looking forward to training more students with the Canine Commandos, as well as spreading the word about her awesome organization.
"I was just awarded Orange Appeal Magazine's Teacher Makeover, where a consultant visited my closet to show me which articles of clothing work for me and which do not," Mrs. Hamilton said. "Then, I was taken to the Mall at Millennia for a new $500 wardrobe and hair and makeup makeover, with a photo shoot, which includes before and after pictures and information about the Canine Commandos."
The feature came out on Sept. 5.
For more information about the Canine Commandos, visit www.caninecommandos.com.