Photo by Cierra Voelkl on Unsplash

Waylon resembled me as much as anyone I had ever met. He was vast in potential, but just as barren in achievement. Bouncing and buzzing with energy, but just as drained of direction. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Waylon and l mirrored each other, except for one minor difference: Waylon was a dog, and I was a 29-year-old prisoner.

Waylon and I met when he arrived at Pender Correctional Institution to participate in the New Leash On Life program (NLOL), where we began our adventure of learning together and from each other. NLOL works with incarcerated individuals to provide at-risk shelter dogs with training so they can be placed in forever homes. Through positive reinforcement-based training, inmate trainers teach the dogs basic obedience skills and a few fun tricks while also healing their brokenness with love. For Waylon and many of the pups, NLOL saves them from getting euthanized.

Waylon was not the only one to receive the amazing gift of a new life through our partnership. As kindred souls, Waylon and I bonded instantly. Waylon was friendly but wild, smart but full of mischief. He learned at warp speed, but when given a little bit of idleness, mischief ensued. Sometimes he would bite the cuff off my taupe pants, spin like a tornado, and launch himself at me full speed when I tried to take off my shoes.

His freedom to seize the moment freed my captive soul. But while his antics delivered only joy, I was reminded of the damage I had left in the tornado-twisting path of my selfish choices. 

While celebrating Waylon’s potential, I mourned the ruins of my own wasted potential. I was excited for Waylon’s much-deserved second chance for a happy life, but I wondered if I would ever get a second chance and wondered if l deserved one.

Waylon found purpose in the love he received and the skills he learned. Would I ever get out of prison so I could find a life with purpose? 

Then an epiphany silenced the doubts. I realized that each day already burst with purpose because I was helping Waylon realize his potential. I did not have to wait for release from prison. Being a part of his transformation revolutionized my life. Training dogs and mentoring apprentice trainers saturated my formerly arid life with purpose.

Waylon taught me the power of positive reinforcement as well as the critical thinking skills I needed to analyze my past choices and the consequences for myself and others. I thought about the person I had become, the person that I actually wanted to be, and the short-term and long-term choices needed to become that person. This understanding helped me find ways to remain motivated and establish a reward system for myself to accomplish my goals.

Fast forward five years and 15 dogs, I’m now a seminary student in the North Carolina Field Minister Program. The lessons that I learned as a dog trainer have become my guiding principles for mentoring other students. 

Incarcerated critical thinkers can more accurately understand the true causes of the problems plaguing the criminal justice and prison system and more precisely form effective, practical solutions than the “experts.” Living within the system enables incarcerated individuals to adeptly understand not only the various components of both problems and solutions, but also how the various components fit together.

Waylon arrived for training to have his life changed but changed my life in the process. Now, I am motivated to try to change not only the prison culture, but society. 

Few people care about prisoners, prisons or sentencing laws, but everyone should. Most prisoners return to society, and almost every person interacts with these returning citizens. The prison environment significantly impacts these returning citizens, who then impact society when they are released. That’s why the prison culture and sentencing laws matter to everyone.

Thanks to lessons learned while training Waylon and applying them to my own life, I have never felt more accomplished. I’m a college graduate, published author, social justice advocate and peer mentor. Who would think it possible to learn so much from a dog?

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.

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Timothy Johnson

Timothy Johnson is the assistant editor for Nash News in Nash Correctional Institution, the first prison publication in North Carolina. He holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry with a minor in counseling from Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary. He also works as a graduate assistant and is the editor of the “Ambassadors in Exile” journal for The College at Southeastern’s North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP), which provides theological training to long-term incarcerated people.