“How would you like a puppy?” I was asked. Sounds like a pretty straightforward question that is posed everywhere. I would like to share why that very question was anything but ordinary when I was asked it in the early 1990s.
In 1993, I had been incarcerated 18 years and certainly had not experienced the touch of silky ears or big brown eyes looking at me during this time. I was being offered the unique opportunity of helping to start a prison program of raising puppies for “Pilot Dog.” As puppy raisers, we receive eight-week-old to raise as potential service dogs for visually impaired individuals. In my mind, gosh, what a great opportunity to give back to others.
Puppies require care, love, and gentle direction in learning basic commands. Prison rules put a good deal of added structure into what is usually easy. My puppy may need to “go potty,” but if it is “count time” the puppy has to wait. Try explaining that to an eight-week-old puppy in the middle of the night.
The upside of doing something like this is watching and guiding the tiny puppy as it grows into a beautiful dog. Your time and hard work develop before your eyes. No matter how bad a day you may have, you have to smile at the antics of a puppy. You start smiling, your mood improves, and you respond in a positive manner with other inmates or staff.
One of the few things a person in prison has any control over is how she or he reacts to any situation. Inmates are told when to go to bed, to get up, to perform bodily functions, to go eat, what to eat, what to wear, and what to do in about all aspects of life. I have found that keeping a positive mindset, even when adversity abounds makes a situation easier to get through. Having that puppy trip over its feet or run up to you makes you smile and it defuses whatever negative event that may have transpired earlier.
I am still training dogs in 2012 and 2013, and no one could have told me that I would still be doing it in prison. The incarceration sentence of 20-years-to-life is now approaching 38-to-life. Yeah, that is pretty depressing if I dwell on the negative aspect of this time. I look down on the nine-week-old black Lab I named “Cricket” curled up at my feet and see the positive. I am privileged to raise this puppy and she will eventually give a person freedom.
When a dog is partnered, we see the letter that Pilot Dog sends to the institution, and I feel a ssense of helping another person. We never know the actual name of the person, only if it is a man or woman.
I have worked with training other service disciplines in another prison-based program. This is very worthwhile, too.
Dogs are so much more than pets and capable of doing a wide variety of tasts to help humans live a fuller and safer life. If you happen to see a service dog guiding its person along, it just might be a dog that began its service in a prison. People in prison can begin to their future, too. We just need a chance.
Editor’s Note: Patricia N. Wernert is incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution. She is one of the leaders in a special program that helps raise dogs that provide future assistance to visually impaired individuals.