Serving a life sentence seems like an insurmountable endeavor. At some point, I realized that a change in point of view was necessary. I needed to find a job that gave me purpose and made a difference. I first worked as a law clerk and taught a class in legal research. Next, I got involved in the GED program as a tutor. I was eventually offered the opportunity to teach academic courses to a group of Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA) offenders. This program is designed to help prepare young prisoners for college when discharged. Teaching was obviously rewarding, occasionally word would come back that former students were attending college or a trade school. I would tell myself, “You did good,” because no one else did.
Then, I started training service dogs. The dogs belong to Paws with a Cause (PAWS) and were assigned to prisoners for a four-month training period. When I started, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. The adventure began immediately with Tucker, my first dog. We did simple things like walking, talking and laying together so we can get comfortable with each other.
Training begins with “Walks to Nowhere,” an exercise in bonding. I trained the dog to walk at my side in a heel position. Once that initial hurdle was mastered, I introduced several different commands. The regimen of new commands continued week after week, a process professional trainers from PAWS guided me through. I realized that Tucker was training me too.
Going through the learning process as partners is, at times complicated — some things come quickly while others take time. I finally realized when the dog is not responding to commands it is not his problem, it is mine. I project a lack of confidence in his ability, and he sensed that. Case in point: I once commanded “stop” and Tucker kept moving because I was not paying attention to my voice, and I wasn’t handling the leash well.
I’ve been taught to praise and reward the dog for excellent behavior. Praise is a form of affection toward the dog. It lets him know he is appreciated and loved for how well he is following direction. At first this was very hard to do in prison. Prisoners who show affection are viewed as vulnerable.
I had obviously gotten past that hurdle when a prisoner asked, “Why do you kiss that dog?”
“Because I want him to know that I love him,” I responded. “The greatest strength is gentleness.” Tucker and I strutted away proudly.
Unfortunately after four months and just when our bond was cemented, my dog had to return to PAWS. I wept tears of joy and sadness. I have to let go and trust he will be of service to someone. Soon, however, I get a new dog, and the cycle of training begins again.
A joyous day comes when I hear that my dog has become a service dog. Going on to his ultimate destination as a detection dog, service dog for veterans, comfort dog, or another kind of service dog. In that moment, I realize that someone who has a need for assistance is getting the help they deserve because of my work. I view my life differently. Instead of going through the motions and wanting to die, I have a purpose. I think of the Nietzche quote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Fourteen dogs later, Life does not look like a sentence anymore.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.