Today seemed like a day that I was excited for and dreading all at the same time. I was excited to see Lyric and Liam finish one leg of their journey and have the opportunity to go into their long-term foster homes because that meant they were one step closer to the day they would graduate. But, I was also dreading this day because I know what it feels like on the day that you are turning in your puppy in training; and even though you know that this is all part of the process and so worthwhile for the final objective or raising assistance dogs, it’s a difficult day none-the-less. Today wouldn’t be hard for me other than the fact that I would be watching others saying goodbye to their dogs in training, and as a volunteer who has puppy raised, I could commiserate with their feelings all too well.
I saw it as soon as we got into the correctional facility-the handlers were out playing with their dogs and having fun-but the look on their faces told me there was more than just playing going on. They were processing the day ahead of them, and they were quieter and less conversational which I could totally understand. Petting the dogs by the handlers was more frequent, the kibble rewards were flowing freely, and other inmates that aren’t part of the program could see and feel the change in the room as well I’m sure.
Changes were already happening; the inmates had packed up the items for the dogs and some if not all of them that were switching cellmates had rearranged their items and moved in with their new roommates. Change happens quickly here, and I wondered if that was a piece of self-preservation learned over the years or simply a way to move on and start fresh again.
Before we knew it, filming was coming to an end and it was time for the handlers to say goodbye to Lyric and Liam. I watched from a distance, mainly because I knew if I got any closer I wouldn’t be able to contain my emotions which were hanging by a string the way it was anyway. I didn’t want to make the day anything more difficult for the handlers than what they had to already do. The snuggles with their pups in training were heartwarming and sincere and it was clear what these dogs had done for their handlers. They had given them the gifts of patience, confidence, a learned discipline in dog training, trust and teamwork and that just was the tip of the iceberg. One inmate told me that this was the best thing he has ever done with his life and I was amazed to hear this verbal acknowledgment. It was during those moments I realized the gravity of one dog and a person who is incarcerated. The research shows that dog programs in facilities like these reduce recidivism and create success in the handlers-and I’m confident that these 4 men will prove those statistics right. Success in dog training is easily transferred over into many aspects of life because you need the same skills in life as you do training a dog.
It’s more than just a dog. And turning them over for the next part of their journey is a difficult one. As a whelping home, we worry about the next step for the puppies that we have loved for their very first weeks; as a great-start home we worry about the next step in their journey for the pups we have loved from the time they were 10 weeks old; as an inmate handler/puppy raiser you worry that the foster home for the pup you have loved many months or more won’t be able to give the puppy the same amount of time and attention that you have provided every single day since they walked through your doors and into your heart; and as a final foster home we worry whether we will be able to give them all of the skills they will need to have in order to realize the vision of the organization to give freedom and independence to those that are waiting for it. It’s not easy! All of this involves stress and whether we can do the job we volunteered to do. There are moments of doubt and lack of confidence-did we do ENOUGH???? What does ENOUGH look like?
And then I tried to figure out what I could do to share with the handlers a little bit of Lyric and Liam after they left so staff and handlers could see that everything was well. I figured the best way to do this is to share the comments from other fellow volunteers-and these are for all of the inmate handlers that work with dogs from Can Do Canines!
And although this story is about the Life of Sugar and her L puppies, I don’t forget for one moment that Liam and Lyric weren’t the only dogs that left the program yesterday to start the next step and that next week more dogs will be leaving there. The feelings I talk about here apply to all of the handlers in the program and my appreciation and gratitude is for everyone who makes that program successful-from Can Do Canines, the Staff at Stanley and the inmate handlers. It couldn’t happen without all of them!
Throughout this post is a glimpse of Lyric and Liam when they arrived as well as their final day with their handlers…….
And the comments from other volunteers in the program show the effect of this program as well:
“Could you tell them that I understand how much they will miss him and I will take good care of him?”
“All of us fellow puppy raisers and fosters know just how they feel….and I hope they know that these pups are going to touch more lives along their journey to their forever client. I’ve post-prison fostered several dogs and each of them has enriched my family’s life. I can always tell they’ve been well loved and cared for, because each dog has been nothing short of amazing, each in their own way.”
” It is never easy to say goodbye! Please be sure the handlers know how much they are appreciated. Their efforts never go unnoticed and we are grateful to have them as part of our big “team.” These dogs are so special because they change clients’ lives, but they always change the handlers’ as well. Wishing Lyric & Liam the best of luck as they begin their next chapter.”
“What a blessing these dogs are for so many people along the way!”
So, if there was any doubt that volunteers are rooting for the success of the Prison Programs or the success of the dogs that pass through them, you can see that volunteers all hope for a graduation at the end of the rainbow!!!
My biggest disappointment of the day was that I didn’t get the opportunity to go back in and say goodbye to these volunteer handlers due to the filming schedule, to shake their hands, congratulate them on a great job and wish them well….and I just couldn’t write a blog today without taking an opportunity to do that.
An Open Letter to the Inmate Handlers of Stanley
Thank you. You have been willing to open yourselves up to allow me to follow your journey with Lyric and Liam. You endured the endless questions, the changes, and interruptions in your daily life so filming could take place, and you still managed to keep training the dogs to the highest level to increase their success once they left you and your PAWS program.
You have given them a piece of your heart, and that is the best thing these dogs will use to make you proud. You have learned to trust in them, and they, in turn, have learned to trust you. It may not have always been easy, but you didn’t give up on them or yourselves. That is what maybe impressed me the most because as a puppy raiser previously I had to struggle through the training challenges and had to figure out what I could do to stay positive, continue training and wait for the moment when the dog finally clicks and understands what you are asking them to do. Sometimes it would have been easier to give up – but with determination comes success!!!
I am so appreciative that you allowed me into your lives to get just a glimpse of life at Stanley within the PAWS program. You may have been learning many new things, but I was learning along the way as well. The lessons I’ve learned are dramatic and for me, they are life changing. I know being a part of a film project is daunting and fun all at the same time. But filming wouldn’t have been successful if you hadn’t shared your experiences, challenges, and your heart.
On Saturday, the first two dogs from the Stanley program(Harvey and Rio) graduated with their clients. I can only imagine how proud you feel that you had a piece in that story of their success!I can’t wait for the day where you can see Lyric and Liam graduate! I would love to see the grins on your faces when you see once again that through this program you are changing lives!!! And my grin will mirror yours-because I know the hard-fought journey for these two beautiful pups required a commitment that many might find difficult to comprehend.
Congratulations to Ronald, DJ, Marc, and Vernon as well as all of the handlers working with dogs! Wishing you continued success in everything you do on your journey!!!!