~Smiles turn into laughs and laughs turn into kisses-and before you know it, the days turn into weeks-and weeks into months. And you find yourself forgetting who you were or what it was like before they were born~
The day that I have been thinking about for what seems like forever finally arrived! Wednesday, June 7th was the day that I was able to go visit the 2 “L litter” pups Liam and Lyric at the Stanley Correctional Facility in Wisconsin and meet their handlers!!!! I was filled with every emotion possible: anticipation, nervousness, joy, and a touch of sadness that they are growing up so quickly. They are a little over 7 months old now, and I couldn’t wait to see them!
Ken and I talked about what we thought the visit would be like on our drive there-what we might see, whether the dogs would have any clue who I was, and what we would learn from the handlers and staff as we got to spend the day with them learning about the puppy program at Stanley and how they were doing working with Liam and Lyric. I can honestly say if I took every expectation and thought that I was thinking in my mind about how I anticipated the day to progress, and if you asked me how it compares to the actual experience, it wasn’t anywhere close.
We made it through security (after a few tries on my part!) and walked through the first set of locked gates, and all of a sudden, off to my right, I saw 2 beautiful yellow labs and 4 handlers working with them in the distance and I knew it was Liam and Lyric. I’m not sure why, but all of a sudden the tears came! Happiness to see them even at a distance, shock at how much they’ve grown, that they were working diligently with their handlers and ignoring all of the sights and sounds around them…..probably all of the above! I couldn’t help myself and I enthusiastically waved through the fences to the handlers(and pups) in the distance! There was a shift change, which meant that the security personnel for the evening was coming in, so we had to wait for a little in that area to allow for the change and the few minutes seemed like forever. I intently watched the pups working on their tasks and anxiously waited to get to the other side so I could say hi to them! Finally, it was almost time, and I had to catch myself from stepping in front of the staff to get to the outdoor area…
When I walked through the door, all I could see was those beautiful puppies in front of me as everything else surrounding me fell away. For just a few moments it was me and them, and the joy for me was palpable. They greeted me, jumped on me and licked me and for that instant, I knew in my heart that there was something, no matter how small, that they remembered about me! Whether it was my voice, my “puppy, puppy, puppy” call, or the smell of their mom that undoubtedly was on my clothing-it didn’t matter! The months since I last saw them disappeared as did the anxiety of the day and the worries of how they were doing!
After the unbelievable puppy reunion, I collected myself and apologized to the handlers for not saying hi to them yet! They had patiently waited in the background and let Ken and I love all over those bundles of joy (which probably went against any rule of people petting assistance dogs, but I was reassured by the handlers and staff this was an expected situation and they didn’t have their capes on!). We went through the introductions and questions were flooding my brain. How do you like working with them? What is the program at Stanley like? What is the difference between the two puppies? What have they learned so far? How has this changed you? What do your families think about you being in the program? I felt like I was throwing questions at them in rapid fire succession, and all of us had the added experience of being filmed by Mark the videographer while this was taking place. When Mark didn’t have the camera rolling or was trying to set up equipment, I tried my best not to ask any questions about the dogs or the program-but with little success. Then in the background, I would hear Mark say “you can’t ask questions yet Holly….” and so I jokingly told the handlers they needed to keep me off-topic.
The conversations were honest, sincere, and thought provoking. They got choked up when talking about what this program means to them and in turn it was all I could do to keep myself together. The handlers shared stories with me about their families, their journey with the dogs, how being in the program affects their daily life, and their heart. They could have chosen to stay on the surface in their conversations with me, but they seemed to enjoy someone enthusiastically talking with them about something they love to do, a joy that we share together as volunteers, and I so appreciated their conversations! I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how powerful these assistance dogs in training can be for inmate handlers and the facility as a whole. Without a doubt, these dogs are changing many lives before they even make it to their final home with their forever human! The prison program has always had a little bit of mystery surrounding it for me, not for lack of people trying to explain what it’s like, but because without seeing it sometimes it’s hard to believe and comprehend what others are saying.
So, what did I see? I saw program staff that are absolutely all in when it comes to making sure this program is successful for everyone involved; I saw engaged handlers working with the dogs on tasks that will change someone’s life, I saw happy dogs, connected emotionally with their handlers, and I saw pride in the eyes of staff and handlers/sitters involved with the program. Both the handlers AND dogs were eager to learn and eager to please. I was able to visually see what my mind couldn’t understand before. Most importantly, I got to hear from the handlers themselves about the lessons they’ve learned from being part of this program; patience, tolerance, teamwork, understanding that the most important goal is the success of the dog(and that it sometimes takes a little while to come to this realization!), confidence, giving back in an extremely tangible way, and how change is possible if given the right tools.
And what about the dogs? What have they learned? They’ve learned tasks at their young age that I haven’t even been able to train for with the dogs we puppy raised in our own home through adulthood! They can go to their handlers based upon a specific “call” that is different from others and they know which one belongs to the call, the heel, side, sit, down, tug, under, park, clean up, spin, front, back, away, and Liam can wait without eating food out of his bowl while his handler goes to another floor and gets coffee-releasing him when he returns. They know that when their collar comes off, they go to their kennel even when they are outside of the room. I could continue with many more skills they know, but suffice it to say that training is happening and is very successful! Lives are changed because people are taking the time to invest their heart and energy for a cause bigger than themselves.
And if that wasn’t amazing enough in every way, I then got to have a “learning session” with the entire training group and share my story of being a whelping home, explaining how that part of the organization works to bring puppies to the program for training. I told myself if I saw boredom or 3 handlers start to doze out of boredom, I would stop talking have them use the training time for the dogs instead-but to my surprise they sat listening and asking wonderful questions about all aspects of the program. And afterward, many came up to Ken and me, shaking our hands and thanking us for what we do-and all we could do was thank them right back for volunteering too! After all, we are all volunteers for the same mission and vision!
And when I asked the handlers how they’ve learned all the skills they have acquired, with a broad smile they replied that “Miss Dyan” (Can Do Canines Trainer that handles Wisconsin) has taught them everything they know!
Out of all the lessons that I took away from my experience, (which were many!) the most basic takeaway for me was this: Mistakes have been made in their past, that’s true-but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) define their future OR their ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others . Isn’t that what we ALL hope for in our own lives as well at the end of the day?