As a writer, it’s hard for me to ignore a good story. When I became a weekend puppy raiser, socializing a service dog-in-training for NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the fascinating people who pull together to mold a tiny little puppy into an assistance dog, as part of NEADS’ Prison PUP Partnership. In the program, up to 95 percent of NEADS puppies are trained in 10 correctional facilities throughout New England.
I wanted to write about everyone — the prison inmates who live with and teach the puppies obedience and tasks, the trainers who teach the inmates, the prison captain who oversaw the program, the breeders. But as I got deeper into the project, I realized that there was another story to tell, and it was a much more personal one.
The prison pup Daisy taught me to think like a dog –- in the present. The bond I formed with her and her inmate trainer, Keith, helped me to be a better parent and a kinder person. But the most profound lesson from that year was learning to accept loss as inevitable and focus instead on living a life full of purpose. I wrote the book Weekends with Daisy about my work with NEADs.
I’m convinced that love at first sight is a myth … unless you’re looking at a dog. The first time I laid eyes on Daisy, I was smitten. The moment was heightened by the setting, a medium-security prison. In the midst of all that cold steel and concrete was the most precious Labrador Retriever puppy I’d ever seen.
I could have thrown up, that’s how nervous I was about going into the prison to meet Daisy for the first time. You know that feeling when you’re getting ready for a first date or going to a job interview? That sensation of excitement spiked with dread, like someone has injected ginger ale into your central nervous system? Well, that sickly brew had worked its way down to my knees and up into my throat by the time I pulled into the parking lot of J. J. Moran. I swallowed it down and stepped out of my car.
I picked my way toward the building, shrugging a denim shirt over my tank top. The day had been blazing hot and though it was close to six in the evening, the temperature hadn’t dropped below 90 degrees. The fabric felt like a horse blanket on my skin, but during orientation somebody had mentioned there was a dress code for visitors, and I didn’t want to take the chance of inciting a prison riot with my bare shoulders (cue derisive laughter here).
Visiting hours were in session this time, and a cluster of people stood in front of the reception desk, waiting their turn to sign in. Others sat against the wall in gray molded plastic chairs. I squeezed through the crowd and up to the counter, feeling uneasily conspicuous and at the same time just a little bit worried that someone might mistake me for the kind of person who would know someone in prison. I attempted to catch the eye of the skinny gray-haired guard — the one who had shook his head and laughed at Jones’s name the first time I was there. Finally, he looked up at me, a pencil poised over a log. “Who you here for?” He didn’t recognize me.
“Um. She’s a dog. Daisy?”
The guard grabbed a phone. “Canine Daisy to the brass’s office,” he said into it, gesturing behind him toward the red metal door. “Go right ahead, dear.” I stepped past a younger guard whose clean-shaven head caught the reflection of the overhead light. He was watching a toddler struggling to pull the tiny pockets of her jeans inside out to show him they were empty. Her mother stood nearby with a bored expression on her face. I could feel her eyes on me and hated myself a tiny bit for feeling smug that I didn’t have to empty my pockets or walk through the metal detector.
While I waited for the first door to buzz, signaling me to push it open, a clutch of visitors gathered behind me. They followed me through and we stared in silence at the handle of the second door, willing it to unlock. Our small group stepped into the building. While the others continued straight to the visitors’ door, I broke off and walked past a soda machine toward shift command. The door slid open and I stepped in, peering through what looked like a bank teller’s window, until I spotted the correctional officer inside. I lifted my hand to him and he waved back. We both watched the door slide shut. Just one more door between me and the puppy whose face I had memorized from the sixteen thousand times I’d opened the email containing her picture.
I couldn’t wait for the final door to slide open all the way, so I squeezed through sideways and followed the cinder-block walls past Captain Lefebvre’s office, where he was talking on the phone, on to the cramped vestibule that led to the prison yard. And then I stopped short. There she was, as exquisite in her simplicity as the flower she was named for. Daisy sat next to her inmate, the top of her head barely reaching to his knee. Her plush butterscotch fur blended with the tan of his suede work boots and khakis. A little squeal escaped me and I clapped my hand over my mouth like a game-show contestant who’d won the grand prize.
Daisy rose slightly on her haunches, her tail stirring the grit on the floor. “Sit.” The inmate holding her leash drew out the word in a steady, coaxing tone. I tore my eyes from Daisy. The inmate was about six feet tall, hard and lean in his buzz cut and prison uniform, a stark contrast to Daisy’s softly rounded lines. He looked dangerous, like he belonged here. “It’s like she knows you.” Captain Lefebvre had appeared beside me. He must have been working a double shift to be there so late on a Friday.
“Yeah. You sure you two haven’t met already?” The inmate’s voice was low, rough, but leavened slightly with humor. He glanced at me, then ducked his head and looked down at the puppy. My mind jumped around for something clever to say. I came up with nothing.
Captain Lefebvre spoke again: “Sharron, this is Keith, Daisy’s handler.” He waited while we mumbled hello to each other like two shy schoolkids meeting on the playground. Daisy was standing now, sniffing the floor, creeping closer to me. Keith guided her gently back to his side and she plunked her bottom down hard, into a sitting position.
“She’s so obedient,” I said to him.
He shifted his weight and stood up a little straighter. “Yeah, she’s really smart. Picks up on commands real quick.”
I looked back down at Daisy. Her tongue was hanging out in an openmouthed puppy smile.
Keith began telling me how often to feed her and some other things I didn’t hear, so captivated was I by the gorgeous puppy in front of me — the velvety muzzle, the floppy ears — she could have been assembled in a toy factory, she was that perfect. Then Keith lifted his voice a few octaves, catching both my and Daisy’s attention. “Are you ready, girl?”
“Yes!” I nearly blurted. Daisy tilted her head toward him, waiting for the next signal. Keith said, “Let’s go!” and walked her toward me, offering me the leash. I knelt on the floor and let Daisy scramble onto my lap and lick my face. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that; probably I should have acted in a more dignified manner, but the instant I accepted the leash, everything but Daisy melted away. I was in prison, but I was in heaven.
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About the author: Sharron Kahn Luttrell is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in various Massachusetts-based publications, including the Boston Globe. She continues to volunteer for NEADS as a weekend puppy-raiser. To learn more about the work of NEADS, follow them on Facebook.