“Success is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.”
Last night I got the wonderful experience to attend a banquet at Stanley Correctional Institution for the PAWS program with the inmate handlers and sitters. And while I make the long drive to the facility, I often think about what I can learn during my opportunity. What is it about the prison programs that makes them special? Why should anyone care about the dog programs in prison? Are these programs valuable for anything other than just having a place to put dogs until final training? Each time I get the privilege of getting to see a program like this in action, I gain a newfound respect for the programs as a whole, for the Correctional Institutions that invest time and energy to make a program of this magnitude a success and for all of the individuals themselves that grab this opportunity and turn it into something very special that an outsider like me will probably never be able to grasp in totality.
I arrived and anxiously awaited the opportunity to get to the visiting room where the PAWS Appreciation Banquet was going to be held. (PAWS stands for Prisoners Assisting with Service Dogs) Once I entered, I saw a room full of handlers with their dogs and you could feel a true sense of community in the room. Other volunteers, staff, the Warden, program trainer….everyone was there visiting and truly enjoying the opportunity! The handlers were so kind and made sure I had time to visit with both Liam and Lyric and I had to tame my excitement about seeing all of these incredible dogs getting ready for the next step in their journey towards graduation as assistance dogs! I got the opportunity to talk with some of the handlers and I asked them how they were feeling about the upcoming “event” of sending their dogs to final training. We talked about how the moments would be difficult, but they would be laced with excitement for the “final moment” of seeing their hard work being realized as the dog they trained walks across the stage with their client someday in the future. The pride they felt was palpable; the excitement in their eyes was readable; the emotion in their hearts about this partner of theirs was understandable! More than once I had to distract myself so I didn’t tear up just thinking about it!
The fun of the evening was just beginning! We were able to have a wonderful dinner with the handlers, and just enjoy conversation about the everyday things! I was able to meet the other dogs in the program-the H’s, I’s, and J’s-Helga, Huey, Hickory, Ike, Iris, Jasper….and the list continues! I sat back and watched the handlers interacting and how completely comfortable they were with a dog at their sides. I absolutely loved seeing the fosters/volunteers from the program who take the dogs on weekends to add to their socialization skills and home life and it was fabulous to see the whole group just talking and connecting through the love of dogs! The differences disappear and the similarities blossom all because of these 4 legged wonders!
We were honored to be able to hear the story of a client and how a very special assistance dog has changed her life; and while I was listening to her story, I realized that this is maybe where the journey of an inmate handler and that of a Great Start home/Puppy Raiser differs the most. Outside of prison, the dogs we choose to work with are part of our everyday lives-and a very important one at that. We put amazing amounts of energy and time into training the dogs, but we have other endeavors and things that require large portions of our time. But for these handlers, oftentimes these dogs are the majority of their schedule from the moment they wake up until they go to bed. Certainly, they are also busy with daily activities and jobs, but these dogs become their constant companions and their confidant-someone they can share their hopes and fears with. In a way, these dogs start their “assistance” journey when they come to prison; they help these inmates find peace, teamwork, success, pride, trust, hope, and joy just to name a few.
It was then time for the dog demonstrations-and what a wonderful opportunity it was!!! Watching these handlers take pride in their accomplishments was just as fun as seeing the dogs complete their tasks! They were proud of their work, but they were PROUD of their dog! They got up, introduced themselves and their dogs, and then it was so wonderful hearing them speak about some aspect of the dog program, what they were going to demonstrate, and how that applied in the assistance dog world! They talked about the importance of the tasks they were learning, free shaping and the dog’s personality in learning it! I just kept thinking “I want to have a training class with them so they can show me how they taught these dogs such incredible things!”
I know that there are sometimes struggles within prison programs in the area of teamwork; but when you think about the close proximity that these handlers have to live and the added stress of their situation I think they are doing wonderful! I watched the other handlers as one of their team was doing a demonstration and they couldn’t hide the fact that they were enjoying themselves and the success of their teammate!
They took a moment to thank their trainer, and it was very obvious how much they appreciate her! They made her a beautiful token of their appreciation, which promptly made me cry!
Towards the end of the evening, items were won through a drawing and all of the items were made by inmates. Their talent is amazing!
When the evening was over, I once again felt so lucky to be a part of this very special journey. I so enjoyed getting to talk with the handlers, seeing their accomplishments and witnessing their change along this incredible journey! They are not the same people they were when they started in this program, and THAT is why programs like this are priceless!