By Puppy Raiser John
There is a saying among prisoners, “everyone has their own bit to do.” Some are long, some shorter, but each one is long enough (or too long) for the person it was imposed on. My bit is rapidly coming to an end. With that in mind, I’d like to look back on some moments from the past few years and attempt at putting my thoughts and feelings about going home into words.
When the doors in prison close, whether it’s count time, at night or just an opportunity to lay back, we are in our “home.” Yes, I acknowledge the school of thought that refuses to use the term “home” in reference to a cell. The thought that we don’t want to be here and are held against our will, so this cannot be “home.” I understand them, even empathize with it, I just do not subscribe to it. For me, “home” is where I live. Today, as I write this, I live in prison. Thankfully, my joy in life is not derived from my location or circumstance. Its origin is much more significant.
Like every home I’ve ever had, there will also be things about this one that I will miss. No, I am not insane. I will certainly miss things and people in prison. I’ll miss not having bills and not having to make a late-night store run for some unforeseen need. I’ll miss the simplicity of life. Most of all, I will miss the people I work within the Leader Dog [Prison Puppies] program (LDB). I’ll miss the men with whom I’ve shared laughs, tears, successes, and failures. Many of the bonds formed through LDB are lifelong friendships. I will, of course, miss the dogs.
Almost exactly two years ago, I was asked to join Leader Dog Prison Puppies with my “bunkie.” He had been approached to sign up but wouldn’t unless I was his partner. After all, we were close friends and jailing together was easy for us. After several months of training and working with older dogs, we were ready for our own. Well, sort of.
It was January when our puppy arrived. I won’t go into the details of that day, but I assure you, anyone who knows about it knows that it was a rough start for us and our puppy. It is hard enough to live in a cinder block bathroom with another man. Add a puppy and even the best situations can become stressful. Small things like who has the puppy when or how to handle behavior problems can become issues in a hurry. Small tensions become larger and sometimes even enormous. Even with all the difficulties of raising and training a puppy, there is one thing which offsets every negative. The puppy itself.
As the months moved along, we dealt with whatever came. From the everyday training and care of our puppy to an incident requiring a vet evaluation in Rochester, we learned and grew. So did our little female black lab, who is now with a client in Florida. After my first day, I was hooked. As an inmate, the opportunity to give back to society is important. LDB [Prison Puppies] provides purpose in ways that many lacked previously. Even the idea that our families and friends can see what we are working toward as well as our joy in being a part of something so altruistic, gives meaning to the program. It provides a humanizing factor in a place where many feel dehumanized. Even for those who are doing life or have very long sentences, it provides an opportunity to experience joy, love, and a host of emotions they may not have had the chance to enjoy so freely. The intrinsic rewards of doing a good job at something bigger than yourself is perhaps the best part.
Oh sure, dogs we love leave us. We watch them go out the gates. The same gates we long to exit as well. That can be difficult… That is what I’m about to do. Go out and leave a significant part of my life behind me. I’ll miss my friends. I’m nervous about what is ahead of me. I’m thankful that I understand now the importance of the relationships I’ve built in prison. They won’t end, just change. The same goes for my involvement with Leader Dog. It won’t end, just change. I hope to volunteer my time and energy in new ways and in new places. After all, change is good, and Leader Dog has helped me make it through some major changes already. Who knows, maybe I’ll see you in Rochester.
Pictured above, inmates in the Chippewa Correctional Facility demonstrate their Future Leader Dogs’ skills.