When you look at the mission statement for Little Angels Service Dogs what do you think about? I dare to guess that most thoughts automatically go to “Little Angels is changing the lives of their recipients.” You are correct. Our recipients’ lives are changed in the most remarkable and dramatic ways. I invite you to read the statement again and ask yourself…what other lives are being changed…one dog at a time?

The dogs’ lives are changed. They are given a new home, a purpose, training to help them be their best dog self!

The inmates’ lives are changed. They are given a sense of being able to give back. To make amends, to help others in need, to bond with a dog, to learn a new skill.

Did you realize our trainers’ lives are changed just as dramatically? Dana, our Prison Program Coordinator, dog trainer and Whelping Coordinator sat down to share her thoughts on how her life has been changed by the work she does…

“I have to write what I saw, what I felt, and most importantly what has happened on this journey to completely change who I am.  I started a prison program to better train our dogs and expose them to a different environment, different people and extreme emotions.  I did not expect the impact that these incarcerated women and their stories would have on me.  When I leave the institution, I am in awe of the growth I see.  I see their pain.  I see their drive to survive abuse, drugs use, and depression from the pain they endured and the pain they caused.  They abused drugs, they abused their children and they even abused themselves in an effort to escape the violence they lived with.  Some have been abandoned by their fathers.  Some abandoned by their mothers.  Some have been abandoned by both.

I’ve met women who look for love in all the wrong places. Women who have fallen in love with a “man” hiding a sinister monster underneath. I’ve met women who steal, do drugs, abuse the system and yes, even women who have killed.  While none of this is justified, they often believed they had no choice. They believed it was their only way to survive. Some use their time in prison to reflect, to learn from their pasts, to move forward. Others do not. They are stuck in those dark places and have yet to see a way out.

On my first trip to the prison, I had one concern-the safety of our dogs. Would these women care for them? Would they keep them safe? Would they be able to do what we needed them to do? My primary concern was the training and safety of our dogs. And then I saw more…I saw what was in front of me…actually saw them. Women. They had stories. They were more than their prison attire and assigned number.  They had courage. They were open to learning. Before I knew it, they trusted me. Throughout their lives, they had learned not to trust and yet, they trusted ME. They told me their stories. And before long, they were telling me how our dogs were changing them. And I realized how these women, with their complicated pasts, were changing our dogs.

They were articulating things to me; I could not have imagined.  They explained what was happening as they were healing themselves and training a dog at the same time.   Young puppies have so much to learn.  They leave their mom and littermates. They enter a prison.  They too are growing and learning.  They are afraid. What I never thought about while worrying about the safety of our dogs was that every feeling our dogs had-fear, anxiety about noises, chaos of this new life and training were the exact emotions that the inmates are feeling as well.  The inmates began to share that they were seeing their own feelings, emotions, and behaviors through the eyes of their dogs.  They began to see that they had to help the dog be strong and grow in ways that they too had to grow and be strong.  They could see the dogs’ fears and feelings based on what they were also feeling.  They had to change within themselves to help change the dogs they were training.  They were changing one another. 

I have now begun to see the impact of my actions.  I started a program to help our dogs. I wanted to enhance their training, to expand the environment they were exposed to, to help them become strong service dogs for their recipients.  These dogs experience things dogs “on the outside” will never experience.  When these dogs are placed with a recipient that is in pain, struggling to be independent and trying to heal from their own life experiences, they will already have learned to maneuver through the emotions of an inmate who is healing from pain, guilt, abuse, and trauma. These dogs see every type, size, and color of human beings.  They see the happy, scary and sick.  They get stronger and stronger every day. They get consistent training. Day in and day out they train. Best of all-they get so much love.  And while doing so, they heal those around them.

Today my heart is filled with the impact this prison program has had on so many. As these women with real stories sat in a circle yesterday to express their gratitude to ME, for all this program has given to THEM, my heart was filled in ways I never imagined.  I saw pain, healing, and growth. I saw love.  I found myself revisiting that first trip; my concern for our dogs…

The expectation was that our dogs would be well trained, and the inmates would have the love of a dog, while incarcerated. The outcome was beyond what I could have imagined. My dreams were so small in comparison.  My dreams of success have been accomplished!   As all of you that know me know, I am NEVER at a loss for words. And yet, here I sit, unable to adequately express the depth of what has been accomplished and my role in that.  You would think that it stops there. It does not. 

We take “Changing Lives…One Dog at a Time” further still.   There are inmates not training our dogs that volunteer to make each dog a crocheted blanket, donate money, time and love. The dogs are bridging gaps between inmates who would never have spoken to one another.  They are bringing inmates and staff to a new level of understanding.  Hard inmates have turned to mush. A safe environment had been created within the prison walls to reach out to one another and show support and growth.  The dogs go weekly to the hospital to visit inmates who are dying or very ill. 

The cycle of “Changing Lives…One Dog at a Time” continues. My own life has been forever changed. I am so grateful for this opportunity to grow and be a better version of myself.

~Dana

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