And yet another incredible day to visit the Sugarbabies Lyric and Liam, interview the incredible handlers, watch all of the Stanley dogs interacting and playing, and appreciate their great training talent and the prison programs that help to make Can Do Canines dogs successful and life changers! “Inspiring” doesn’t even do justice to the day and I so appreciate each and every opportunity I get to learn more!
The training that the handlers are doing with all of the dogs (not just Lyric and Liam) is truly magical. As a volunteer myself, I watched them show me some of the training and commands and I couldn’t believe my eyes! Teaching the dogs that they have independent foot movement by placing their feet on small FITpaws objects one at a time on command, pinwheels spinning in one direction, Whirling by turning and spinning in the opposite direction with a flick of the wrist, “parking” by turning around in front of the handler and backing under a chair they are sitting on, taking the full bag of training treats gently to another bystander with a soft mouth and never even TRYING to eat the treats, pivoting beautifully, sending them out around a post from a distance where they return to a beautiful “front” position waiting for their next opportunity to please their handler……the list could go on and on!!!! Oh, and did I mention the ‘simple’ job of a dog performing tasks based upon a music note that is being sung??????? 🙂 To be honest, I felt a little bit inadequate as a volunteer trainer! I was thinking, “Wait, I have to learn how to teach that!” I had to remind myself that the obedience portion of the training like sit, down, wait, recall, and loose leash walking is the most critical part of assistance dog training, and that the reason these dogs know so much more is simply because they have much more time to learn these things and it gives dogs in prison jobs to do to keep from being bored.
As I spent the day interviewing them and watching their efforts unfold in amazement, I kept thinking how much time they have spent working with these dogs. They are making a difference in these dog’s lives, and they are making a difference in the lives of the future clients. As volunteers for this organization, we tell ourselves this as well. But as the day progressed, I got a sense of HOW MUCH these dogs are changing the handlers lives-and it is in this place where the difference between inmate handler and volunteer diverges a bit.
As volunteers outside of the prison program, we take a puppy or dog into our home and we independently train it to the best of our ability so that someday in the future it will have the best chance of being an incredible partner for a client. It is us and a dog. We go to training class with others, but it is mainly one on one work that we do with the dog. I want the dogs I train to make everyday life easier, social opportunities greater, and independence for the client is an expected result I hold myself to.
In prison, the handlers have the same task-but with many more obstacles in their way along the journey. They live with others 24 hours a day and have to navigate through the intricate world of how others around them play a part in their journey. One-on-one training doesn’t happen nearly as much, and most of the time they are together with others. They have “sitters” for when they are unable to be around the dogs, and therefore there may be differences of opinion on how to train a dog. Some handlers may want to share their knowledge with others, while not everyone else may not be interested in hearing their expertise. Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend all day, every day, with 20 others who are training dogs-eat, sleep, train and play together. And then maybe you can imagine some of the daily struggles that might be encountered along the way.
During this journey, they have to learn to interact with the assistance dog in training that they are caring for, but they have to grow in learning how to interact with other inmates and handlers along the way as well. All of sudden, if they learn to trust the process, life transforms a bit and they have to see outside of themselves and work towards a goal together. And as important as “graduation day” is for all of us volunteers to see our dogs in training cross that stage, it takes on a much greater importance for these handlers. It may very well be the proudest moment of their lives, and you can feel their excitement about seeing the dog they trained on stage!
During the interviews, this is the part that impressed me most and more than once reduced me to tears. I listened to the handlers express their joys and their struggles, and they more than once talked emotionally about how it’s not easy, but it’s worth it because of their love for the dog in training. Some of them talked about how it used to be just about them and they never thought of anyone else before, and now they have to work to create a future for a dog so that they can change someone else’s life. And they admitted that it’s not always easy to make that leap from thinking only of themselves to putting someone else first, but it was obvious that were putting their best efforts into the process and that is truly inspiring. Maybe one of the many benefits of having a program like this is that the handlers get to let their guard down a bit-they get to share emotions, and they get to invest their heart.
It is often said, even by me, that this organization couldn’t be successful without the participation of the prison systems that are currently part of the program. But what is sometimes left unsaid is that it’s very likely that some of these handlers couldn’t be as successful in their journey to change and develop if it weren’t for the love of a dog. These very special, born for a purpose pups!
Thank you to everyone that has allowed me the opportunity to see into a part of the assistance dog world that not many get to see! It has changed my perspective, and it has given me a newfound appreciation for gifts that assistance dogs give to everyone along the way. They don’t just change and touch the lives of the clients they are placed with; they touch the lives and hearts of hundreds along the way-and those whom they touch will never be the same!