Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I just watched the most amazing thing ever.

" Pax (the dog in the prison program) gave me freedom. He made me feel normal and alive again. He gave me freedom inside these walls."
-one of the inmates involved in the Puppies Behind Bars prison program

Okay, so I just watched the most amazing thing ever. But first a preface: you know in the movie Juno, how the step-mom (played by the wonderful Allison Janney) is obsessed with dogs but since she can't have a dog in her house she just spends all of her time cutting out pictures of them from magazines and making collages? Well, I think that's kind of who I'm becoming. I haven't made any collages (not yet-give me time) but I am absolutely starving for dogs in my life . I had dogs when I was really little, but from age nine on, my family didn't own a dog. And after a while, I sort of forgot what it was like to be around dogs all the time. I convinced myself I might even be a cat person, despite the fact that the cat I begged for and was given for Christmas sort of became my mom's cat by default because well, I'm not a cat person. I've never been. I realized this my senior year of college when my roomie got a dog, a wonderful, loving, silly, sweet dog named Summer who I fell in love with. Despite the fact that she ate (two) of my phones, several sweaters (including the only 100% cashmere sweater I've ever owned) and pooped on my floor on a couple of occasions, I loved her. She made my senior year warmer and fuzzier and happier just by the virtue of her floppy eared, drooling presence in my apartment.

And then senior year ended, I moved to a different apartment, one without a dog, and the withdrawal started. It was moderate at first. I might have found myself staring a little too long at dogs on the street on a few occasions. Perhaps I went on petfinder.com a few times, just for fun, of course. But as time has gone on, the withdrawal has grown more and more severe, to the point where if I see a particularly adorable puppy on the street, I have to physically restrain myself from dog-napping it. I can't walk past those little SPCA sidewalk thingies on Saturdays anymore because if I read one more of those sad, little dog life stories, I'm just going to end up adopting them all on the spot. And that's not good, because as much as I want a dog, as much as my soul is begging for a dog, I'm not in the place in my life where I can get one. I'm going to Thailand, for God's sake. That alone should slap some sense into me. But despite all of my mind's logical arguments, my heart just wants a sweet, furry animal to curl up with at night. And so to at least partially fulfill some of my dog obession, I've been watching a lot of dog shows on TV, like a lot of them.

I've previously mentioned my Cesar Milan habit on this blog. I could never get my fill of his calm and heavily accented wisdom on the ways of pooches. I love watching him go into a house with berserk, hyperactive dogs and within hours completely change their behavior. I love his position that there are no bad dogs, no dogs beyond saving, that "problem" dogs are more often than anything the victims of humans who don't know how to handle them. Same goes for It's Me or the Dog and the British dog-trainer, Victoria. I love the show, Dogtown, about a shelter that takes in last resort dogs and no matter how much damage has been done to them, refuses to give up on them. It makes me cry every single time. The last episode I saw featured a former Ethiopian street dog named Haley who had been horribly abused but who was well on her way to being adoptable again. And if anything proves how amazing dogs are, it's that. Take a human, treat he or she the way some dogs have been treated, and they would be broken forever. They'll never trust again or love the same way. But dogs' hearts are never completely closed. They want to love and trust and the only thing standing in the way are stupid people who take advantage of that loyalty and helplessness.

But I digress. All of this talk of dogs and my dog obsession came up because of another dog show I saw for the first time tonight. It was on Animal Planet and it's called Cell Dogs. And it's basically about dogs who go to prison. Now at first glance that might sound awful and sad and weird, but it's the opposite. It's absolutely amazing. Apparently, and I didn't know this, there are these programs all over the country where dogs are put into prisons for the benefit of the dogs and the prisoners. The show focused on several of these programs. Some of them took puppies, put them in a prison for a year to a year and half with the ultimate purpose of training them to be guide dogs for deaf or blind people. Or as seen in the clip at the bottom, these puppies might one day go to wounded war veterans. The puppies are matched up with an inmate and they live in their cells and are their responsibility until the training is done. And these are tough guys, like one of them had full facial tatoos and some of them have murdered people or have done really horrible things. And you just expect them to be these monsters. But then these guys open their mouth to talk about the dogs and the program and what it's meant to them, and it's unbelievable. It's literally changed their lives and given them a new kind of purpose and hope in the bleakest of environments. In this horrible place, where so many people turn hard and cruel, these men are going in the opposite direction because of dogs. They're opening themselves up and taking care of another life and recieving unconditional love in return. Because the dogs could care less what these guys have done. All the dog cares about is kindness and someone who will scratch their belly and keep their food dish full and let them snuggle with them. And for someone who the rest of society sees only as a criminal to recieve that kind of love and affection, well it obviously makes a tremendous impact.

There were these other programs in youth detention centers dogs had been returned to shelters because of behavior problems or were in shelters because they had been abandoned or abused or neglected. And these poor dogs were put in the prisons to learn how to be around people again, to either learn to behave or learn to trust again and get to the point where they could get adopted. These kids who were all in gangs, who in the outside world were all about toughness and respect and violence, were given dogs to teach and train. And that sounds like such a simple thing, and maybe if I hadn't seen this with my own eyes I wouldn't believe that it could really make a change, but just in the few short clips I saw, you could see the change. This one kid who had been in a gang talked about how hard it was for him to praise the dog at first, because that outward show of emotion just wasn't allowed in the world outside the youth detention center. But he talked about how he had gotten used to it and then grown to love it, how he could see the change in himself because of his work with the dogs. And whoever thought of this program or any of these programs deserves some kind of award because just think of how much good they do. First of all take the dogs-these are dogs who would have been euthanized, who were deemed unfit to be around people, but they're getting a second chance and learning how to be good. And this is corny as hell, but it's the same thing with these kids. They're getting another chance to be good again.

And it's the same with the adult jails. Yes, jail is punishment. Yes, it should be hard. But it shouldn't turn people into monsters. And in a lot of prisons, that's what it does. The most horrific crimes I've ever heard about have usually been carried out by people who have already served jail time. Jail, this institution that's supposed to take a criminal, let them serve their time, and then put them back into society as better people, instead turns people hard. It shreds whatever tie these criminals have to humanity. It wrecks them and spits them back out as far more dangerous members of society than they were when the went in. And that's screwed up and it's awful and it has to be fixed. Prison shouldn't be a picnic, but a part of prison, especially for inmates due to be released back into society, a necessary and intrinsic part has to be rehabilitation. And I know that's not easy, but these dog programs really seem to be a viable answer. You take someone who is in an institution, surrounded by walls, separated from all family and friends, and you give them a life to take care of, you give them a life to be responsible for, and you enable them to stay human. They're still serving time, but now there's a good chance that time isn't going to twist them and distort them and change them for the worse. And while they're training and taking care of these dogs, they're making an impact, giving back to society, which is the whole point isnt it? From these programs you get guide dogs which can vastly improve someone's quality of life. You get dogs that were going to be euthanized but which now can be adopted and which are obedient and well trained and full of love. And the whole thing is just wonderful.

I wish I could describe these tough looking men and women and kids, people who talked about the murders they had done or the crimes they had committed, and the way these dogs just heal them. I know that's going back to the corny talk, but I can't help it. This show made me a corny person. It made me see how powerful true rehabilitation can be. And the thing is, prisoners might not listen to a therapist. They could probably care less what a trained psychologist has to say about their issues. But take a dog, with their wet noses and big eyes and wagging tales, and entrust the responsiblity for that dog's training to the prisoners and tell them that these dogs will one day change someone else's life, and that's recovery. In this worldess way, dogs allow these people to access the empathy and kindness that has in some cases been buried for years underneath toughness and anger and selfishness. It's the simplest kind of relationship, but it does something for these people that no amount of complex therapy could ever do. And it makes me hopeful and it makes me eager to find out more about these programs and do whatever I can do to support them. Prisons shouldnt take broken people and break them further and right now I think most of them do just that. Prison shouldn't just be a place where people lift weights all day and stew and grow more and more isolated. Prisons, in the best possibe world, should teach people to be good. It should punish but it should never damage. It should allow inmates the chance to contribute to society in a positive way and do good as step toward atonement. And irony of ironies, it seems that the responsibility of teaching a dog to be good might just be a viable answer. Put dogs in prison and you just might just make the place human enough to fix someone now and again.

If you don't believe me watch either of these clips and see for yourself how unbelievable these programs are. You'll probably cry a little but you're also going to feel really hopeful and good inside at the end of it.

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