Weekends with Daisy
MY DAUGHTER SAYS I threw myself at the man with the yellow Lab, but she tends to be overly dramatic. I distinctly remember keeping a respectful distance as he described his role as a volunteer puppy raiser, even if it did require I clasp my hands behind my back to physically restrain myself from patting the dog.
If it had been a few years earlier—when Tucker was still alive, the kids little, and my in-laws healthy—I wouldn’t have reacted so strongly to the sight of the dog. Sure, I would have been curious, but my mild social anxiety would have kept me from speaking up. Instead, I would have strolled by as many times as it took to make out the words on the dog’s vest before retreating back to my shopping list. But on that day, I was feeling desperate. I should have been content. I had a husband who loved me, a good job, two healthy, relatively happy children. But I couldn’t enjoy
being with my family that day because the fact that the four of us were together only underscored how rare an occurrence that had become. Our kids were growing out of childhood and pulling me grudgingly along with them. Soon enough, they would be grown and gone, and with them, much of what defined me for the past decade and a half. Without them, I’d have to somehow figure out who I would be next. The sight of the dog offered if not the answer to my fears of the future, a pleasant diversion from them. And at the very least, a possible cure for my CDD.
The man unloaded his groceries onto the belt as he described the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), which trains service dogs. I’d heard of NEADS, had even covered one of its graduations years earlier when I was a newspaper reporter. But back then, NEADS only trained dogs to alert their hearing-impaired owners to sounds like alarm clocks and crying babies. I hadn’t realized that in the years since, it had expanded its mission to train dogs to assist with a range of disabilities: multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder. There really was no limit to whom the dogs could help.
These days, most of their puppies are trained by inmates in prisons and released on weekends to volunteers like the man in the supermarket, who by now had pulled out his wallet to pay the cashier. I said good-bye and he urged me to visit the NEADS website to learn more. I returned to my daughter, who was lurking two lanes away, pretending to study the cover of Diabetic Living.
THAT EVENING AFTER dinner, I settled in front of my computer and clicked around on the NEADS website until I found
the page for the Prison Pup Partnership. I learned that NEADS places puppies in select prisons throughout New England, where inmates train them to be assistance dogs. The inmate dog handlers have the most coveted job in prison. In exchange for raising and training a puppy, they get three dollars a day and their own cell to share with their dog. Over the course of twelve months or so, these specially chosen inmates are responsible for housebreaking their puppies and teaching them basic obedience before moving on to more specialized tasks with help from a professional trainer: teaching their dogs to pick up dropped coins, turn light switches on and off, push elevator buttons with their noses, get the phone when it rings, open and close doors, and fetch items from a refrigerator. Because inmates have all the time in the world to devote to their jobs, they’re able to train their dogs in about half the time it would take a professional dog trainer, and at significantly reduced cost.
There is one problem, though, and it’s kind of a big one. Assistance dogs go everywhere with their owners, so they need to be confident in all situations. If all a dog knows is prison, it won’t be able to function in the outside world. Things we take for granted—such as phones ringing, couples hugging, cars, and kids—are likely to send the dog into a barking frenzy or scrambling for the nearest hiding place. This is where weekend puppy raisers come in. On Friday afternoons, each puppy is furloughed into the custody of a volunteer who brings the dog along on errands and outings all weekend long, exposing it to new situations and continuing its training until Sunday evening, when the volunteer returns the puppy to prison.
The application to be a weekend puppy raiser was on the website. I skimmed the questions, looking for anything that
might immediately disqualify me. There weren’t any requests for documentation of an advanced degree in canine behavior modification, no trick questions asking whether I’d interrupt my dinner to reward a begging puppy with (a) table scraps or (b) a slab of deli meat from the fridge. The questions were straightforward. How many adults in your household? (Two, if you count me.) How many children and what are their ages? (Fifteen and eleven, but growing up too fast. Sometimes not fast enough.) Any pets? (Two bunnies that live in a hutch outside.) NEADS wanted to know about our house and yard. I described our location in a semirural Massachusetts suburb, emphasizing the total lack of traffic on our cul-de-sac. Then I came to the question “Why do you want to raise a NEADS puppy?”
I closed my eyes and thought about it. Long before Tucker was our dog, she was my aspiration. As a kid, I’d begged for a dog, threatened to run away if I didn’t get one, bargained, cajoled, and whined (a lot). My mother’s answer was always the same: “When you have your own house, you can have a dog.”
It was worth the wait. Marty and I moved into our first home in the month of June and took Tucker, a pudgy eight-week-old puppy with an outsize personality, home in September. We found her in the classifieds of the local newspaper, the product of a secret rendezvous between neighboring German shepherds.
Tucker lived for nearly fifteen years. During that time, I had two babies and figured out how to be a mother. The Tucker years coincided with—and influenced—all of those thrilling firsts: first steps (my daughter was a late walker because of the constant threat of being knocked off her feet); first words (“Tu” for both of my kids); the first day of kindergarten (Tucker
rode in the backseat while I followed the school bus at what I hoped was a discreet distance). There isn’t a home video from those years that doesn’t include at least one furry eclipse or scene-blocking shot of Tucker’s snout and an off-camera voice yelling, “Tucker! Move!”
Throughout the changes wrought by parenthood, Tucker was a reassuring constant. She kept us anchored to routine amid the chaos of kids and work. Every morning, Tucker and I went together for a forty-minute walk through the woods behind our house. I’d stand in the kitchen and call out, “Where are my boots?” running the words together so they came out as a single burst of sound. Tucker would push her snout through the kitty door to the basement, trying to reach the ledge by the stairs where I kept my shoes. She would dart forward, pretend-biting my hands while I sat on the floor to lace them up, and race back and forth through the kitchen until I opened the back door. Then she’d streak outside, disappear through the trees, and wait on the path until I caught up. We did this every day, even when our walk was a slog through rain or snow or I had to wrap a scarf around my face to keep my skin from freezing in the cold.
I felt safe with Tucker. I worked for a newspaper, and when I was transferred to the early-morning copy desk and we had to start our walks in the predawn darkness, Tucker would stay close to me while I focused the beam of the flashlight downward to illuminate roots and rocks, feeling as much as seeing the shadows pulse inward on either side of us. I’d draw comfort from Tucker’s steady panting and the sound of twigs snapping beneath our feet, feeling protected by my dog and the noise we made together.
When I was a teenager, I brought three things with me
whenever I had to walk anywhere alone: a jackknife that I discovered half-buried in the dirt outside my school; a rock that fit in the palm of my hand but was heavy enough to use against an attacker; and a small, carved wooden lion that my mother gave me after my father moved out and which she said would give me strength. There was no specific reason for me to be fearful, just an awareness that sometimes awful things happened and one should be prepared as best she could. It didn’t help that I was small. Even now I’m sometimes mistaken for an eleven-year-old from behind. With Tucker, I didn’t need a rock or a knife or a wooden lion. She was my talisman, my weapon, and my protector. But mostly, she was my dog.
As the kids grew up, Tucker grew old. The moment of her death was quick and painless, but the months leading up to it were excruciating for her and for us. Our dog, who in her younger years had so much energy that I suspected someone had secretly implanted springs in her feet, would struggle to stand up, then collapse as her legs buckled under her weight. She was incontinent and, I’m pretty sure, heartbreakingly ashamed of it.
Every night I’d kiss the top of her head right between her ears, and in the morning I’d reach over the side of the bed and touch her body lightly with my hand until I felt it rise and fall with her breath. My relief at having my dog still with me would fade, though, at the thought of her suffering through another day.
Eventually, Marty and I accepted that it was up to us to stop Tucker’s suffering. She was at the end of her life. We had to let her go. I called the vet and arranged to bring Tucker after the weekend, on a Monday. That gave me time to tell her everything I needed to say to her. For those three days, I’d lie on the floor next to her and reminisce about her puppyhood, my panic on
the first ride home when she wouldn’t stop yelping and crying because she missed her mother and siblings, how lucky we felt to find her, out of all the dogs in the world. I thanked her for preparing me and Marty to be parents, for protecting me and the children, for being our dog.
Marty came home from work early that Monday and we gave the kids time to say good-bye. They cried a little, then drifted off to read or play. Tucker was their parents’ dog more than theirs.
At the vet, Tucker used her last bit of strength to snap at the technician. I was silently proud that my dog was going out fighting. Plus, it was entirely in character for her. Tucker loved going to the vet but hated the exam table. Every time we took her there for shots or a physical, she would race up the steps into the waiting room and greet everyone there with her tail wagging, but the moment we got her on the table, she’d transform from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and start snarling and nipping—and out would come the muzzle. This time would be no different. The vet, a stony-faced but kind woman, apologized when she handed us the blue cloth muzzle and waited while Marty slipped it over Tucker’s nose. While the vet injected our dog with pentobarbital, Marty and I took turns whispering into Tucker’s ear that she was a good dog, a smart dog, the best pal ever, until the vet removed the muzzle so that, in those last moments, we could stroke Tucker’s nose and kiss the spot between her eyes and scratch behind her ears, which we did until we realized there was no longer life beneath our touch.
Marty, whose decades as a journalist taught him the value of gallows humor in times of tragedy, took a long, wavering breath and said between sobs, “Oh, Tucker! You always knew this place would be the death of you.” The vet’s expression didn’t change
but the technician laughed nervously. I put my arms around Marty, shaking from laughter and sobs.
Back home, I washed Tucker’s dishes and stored them in the basement. I used pliers to pry the tags from her collar, then attached them to a long chain and wore them around my neck. The following weekend, Marty and I picked out new carpet. I allowed myself to appreciate the luxury of not worrying about getting home in time to let the dog out even as I hated opening the door to an empty house.
Friends wanted to know when we were going to adopt another dog. We’d tell them maybe someday, but for now we wanted to enjoy our new carpets. Of course that was a lie. Marty always worried about our tight finances and wanted a break from the vet bills. And I didn’t want to start over with a new pet because a dog’s limited years on earth were an uncomfortable reminder of our own. As all endings do, Tucker’s death forced me to look back on my past and forward to my future. Behind me was a life that spilled over with the busyness of a growing family. In front of me, I saw that same family getting older until, in less than half the span of a dog’s natural life, the kids would be off on their own, and it would be just me and Marty left at home.
Oh, crap. I was crying. I swiped my eyes and stared at the question on the computer screen. Why did I want to raise a NEADS puppy? Because I didn’t want a dog who would grow old and die. But that’s not what I wrote. Instead, I typed: I know firsthand how much a dog can enrich a person’s life—my dog was enormously important to me. And I suspect that for a person dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of a disability, a specially trained service dog enhances his or her quality of life even
more. NEADS performs an invaluable service and I’d like to be part of it.
I read over what I’d written and, satisfied, saved the application to my hard drive. The NEADS weekend puppy-raiser program, I naively thought, would be an ideal cure for my Canine Deficit Disorder—pick up a puppy on Friday night, return it on Sunday night, a new puppy every year, no strings attached. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
MARTY WAS IN our bedroom, working out a Neil Young song on his beat-up old Yamaha guitar. His face was partially hidden behind a harmonica stand looped around his neck. Marty’s more than a decade older than I am and was already going gray when we met twenty years earlier, but he has a boyish quality that leaves people unsure of his age.
He blew a final note into the harmonica. “Thank you very much. You’ve been a wonderful audience,” he said, deepening his voice to a Johnny Cash twang.
I clapped and settled onto the bed. “Okay, so, you know that dog we saw in the supermarket?”
He unhooked the harmonica holder from around his neck and placed it on his guitar case. “Okaaay . . .” He drew out the word. I noticed he didn’t meet my eyes. Marty is the opposite of spontaneous. He needs time to warm up to new ideas, especially those that might bring extra cost or complication into our lives.
“So, I’m thinking we should do it. What do you think? We’d have a puppy on weekends. They supply the food; we wouldn’t have to pay for anything. And it would be for a good cause.”
Marty pulled the strap over his head and leaned forward to lay the guitar back in its case. I figured he was remembering the recent Saturday afternoon he spent in the Laundromat when one of our canine houseguests snapped at him and peed on our down comforter. “Well, I’m not crazy about it,” he said.
I brightened. He had said the same exact words to me when I was eight months pregnant and asked how he felt about naming our daughter in memory of my cousin Aviva. Fifteen years later, he couldn’t imagine calling her anything else.
“I’ll send you the link so you can check out the program yourself. That way at least you’ll know more about it,” I told him.
“Yeah, do that. I’ll take a look at it tomorrow if I have time.”
I was pretty sure he wouldn’t find the time. Or if he did, he’d choose to spend it some other way. But that didn’t matter because I knew he’d be mulling it over. Eighteen years of marriage had taught me that.
The next night, when the kids were in bed, I draped myself over Marty’s lap for a back rub while he sat on the couch watching the eleven o’clock news. He pressed his fingers into the area beside my right shoulder blade and kneaded the muscle that’s chronically tight from working the computer mouse.
I turned my head and looked up at him. “Have you had a chance to look at the link I sent you about puppy raising?”
This time he met my eye. “I haven’t. Tell me about it again?”
Marty rubbed my back mechanically while I told him about the program. When I finished, he was quiet for a long time. Before I knew him well, I’d think he was ignoring me, or forgot we were having a conversation. Eventually I realized that he’s just never felt the need to fill silences. A commercial came on and
he patted my back, signaling that the back rub was over. I sat up and looked at him.
“Well, if it’s that important to you, let’s go ahead and do it.”
A FEW DAYS after I submitted the application, the phone rang. When I saw “NEADS” pop up on caller ID I felt a surge of excitement. This immediately triggered a countersurge of cynicism—a sort of self-defense mechanism I deploy to protect myself from disappointment, like an indoor sprinkler system reacting to a spike in building temperature.
I picked up the phone, bracing for a fund-raising appeal.
“Hi. Is this [pause] Sharron?”
“It is,” I said, keeping my voice polite but noncommittal.
“This is Kerry Lemerise. I’m the foster family coordinator for NEADS, I work with the weekend puppy raisers.”
“Hi!” I said, a little too loudly.
“Um. Hi!” Kerry said, gamely trying to match my tone. “We received your application.”
Kerry and I spent about twenty minutes on the phone. I learned there was a long waiting list of weekend puppy raisers at the two prisons closest to me, but not enough volunteers at the medium-security prison in Cranston, Rhode Island. I’d never been to Cranston. I didn’t know where it was, but I was beginning to feel a little panicky about missing out on a puppy, so I flipped through my brain for mental evidence that Cranston was within reasonable driving distance of my home. The Rhode Island state line is five miles from my house. Providence is only about thirty-five minutes away from me. “Is Cranston
anywhere near Providence?” I asked Kerry. She thought it might be.
Gas prices were edging upward to four dollars a gallon. I—like every other driver in the nation—was cutting back on road trips, not adding them. Still, I wanted so badly to be part of the NEADS program that I did a quick calculation in my head and immediately began rationalizing: I was lucky to have a job that allowed me to work from home and drive in to the office in Boston only once a week. Even if Cranston was farther away than Providence (which it turned out it was, but only by three or four miles), I’d still be better off than if I had to commute into Boston five days a week for my job. I know one has nothing to do with the other, but I was desperate, and a desperate mind can rationalize just about anything.
“Rhode Island’s a small state. How far could it be? I’ll do it,” I said.
“You’re sure, now?” I could tell Kerry needed confirmation that I was in this for real.
I pushed all doubt from my voice. “Absolutely!” I told her.
We made arrangements for me to attend an upcoming puppy-raiser orientation at NEADS. There I’d get an overview of the prison-pup partnership and learn what to expect as a puppy raiser. Once I completed the orientation, I’d be eligible for my own puppy. Before we got off the phone, Kerry asked whether I had any questions. I did.
“How do the puppies go to the bathroom if they’re locked in a cell?” It had been eating at me since I met the puppy raiser in the supermarket.
Kerry told me the dogs were in minimum- and medium- security prisons where the inmates had plenty of time outside
the cells and with complete access to the prison yard. Clearly I had a lot to learn about the prison system. And, as I was soon to find out, about dog training, too.
AT THE NEADS orientation, there were nine prospective puppy raisers sitting around a large conference table. A few were women around my age, but there was also a teenage girl there with her boyfriend and her mother, and a young couple who were new to Massachusetts. Most of us wore the blank but polite expressions people paste on their faces when they want to make a good impression but are running through their grocery lists or visiting foreign lands in their heads. Or, in our particular case, thinking about playing with puppies. The first few hours of PowerPoint slides and tips on how to read a dog’s body language were seriously fascinating, and Kerry, who led the orientation, had an easy humor that made us like her instantly. But that morning she’d hinted that we’d get to practice some training techniques on real live puppies after the lecture, and, judging from the yips and barks on the other side of the door, that moment was about to arrive.
The puppies had been walked over from the Early Learning Center (better known as the puppy house), a 1950s-style Cape at the entrance to the NEADS property. We were in the main building on the NEADS “campus,” an eighteen-acre spread carved into the woods of the rural town of Princeton, Massachusetts. The main building houses kennels, offices, and training rooms, all with the purpose of transforming puppies into service dogs and placing them with people who need them. Across the parking lot is a two-story farmhouse where the
clients live with their new service dogs for two weeks of intense training.
The three-hour orientation was total dog immersion. We learned that NEADS service dogs are almost always Labrador and golden retrievers. The breeds tend to be eager to please, intelligent, and adaptable, which makes them easy to train and excellent helpers. NEADS also trains standard poodles and labradoodles for clients who are allergic to dog hair; and smooth-coated collies, which tend to be tall, so function nicely as “balance dogs” for people who have difficulty walking without support.
We also learned about the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA doesn’t distinguish between service animals or between different types of devices disabled people need, like a wheelchair or an oxygen tank. By law, public places have to grant service dogs access. However, it’s up to individual states to decide whether to allow animals public access when they’re still in training. Fortunately, in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island people with puppies in training have the same rights as those with full service dogs.
Finally, Kerry switched off the projector and announced it was time to meet some puppies. I capped my pen and leaped to my feet, but I wasn’t fast enough. By the time I reached the doorway, at least half my classmates were already in the next room and on the floor, melting into human puddles. When I broke through the crowd and saw four potbellied, tail-wagging black Labs and a fluffy golden retriever named Sutton, I let out a little cry and collapsed into an oozing mess right along with my fellow trainees.
We followed Kerry and the puppies outside to a grassy area
near the main building. She distributed the dogs by handing us the ends of their leashes like she was dealing a deck of cards. I was secretly pleased to end up with Sutton because he was, I thought, the cutest of the group. He and the other puppies were bolting around, happy to be outside chasing insects and rolling in the grass while we humans at the ends of their leashes looked on helplessly. Kerry grabbed a black Lab midpounce and showed us how to fashion a makeshift harness from the leash by threading it behind the puppy’s front legs and looping it back up through the collar. She led the chunky little puppy around like that, and while the setup did keep him from lunging on the lead, it also caused him to lift his front legs unnaturally high, like an awkwardly prancing horse. We all practiced harnessing our puppies. Then we worked on “object exchanges.” Kerry handed around nuggets of kibble, then pulled an assortment of chew toys and balls from a net bag and tossed them to the ground, one in front of each puppy. When the puppy grabbed its toy, we were to grasp one end, say “Give,” and offer it the kibble. Over time, the puppies would learn to give up an object on command.
We learned a few more basic training tips, but the highlight was toward the end of the session when we got to practice puppy-handling exercises. I hauled Sutton onto my lap and played with his paws, flopped his ears back and forth, pried open his mouth and felt around inside, all while feeding him treats so he’d form positive associations with being handled. For someone like me, who had been in the throes of dog withdrawal for twenty-four months, the puppy-handling exercise was morphine. It’s a wonder the NEADS folks didn’t have to mop me up with a sponge when we were through.
AT THE END of the session, we were told that we’d get a call as soon as a puppy was ready. I didn’t have to wait long. Less than one month later, I was assigned my first prison puppy. Except Jones wasn’t a puppy. He was a fourteen-month-old black standard poodle. Poodles need more socialization than most service breeds, so Jones had spent the first year of his life living with a full-time puppy raiser in Maine before being transferred to a prison for more focused training. The Maine raiser’s task had been to teach Jones basic obedience and expose him to as many situations and people as possible so he wouldn’t develop, well, let’s just say poodle-like tendencies. Poodles are highly intelligent, finely tuned animals, and for these reasons can make excellent service dogs, but they are different from Labs or golden retrievers in a few key ways. Labs are forgiving; poodles are not. If you had a standard poodle and accidentally poked him in the nose while spoon-feeding him his nightly dinner of liver pâté, he would never touch a spoon, chopped liver, or you again. Poodles, like German shepherds, bond closely with their person and tend to be skittish around unusual sights and sounds and suspicious of people. That’s why they need tons of socialization.
So when Kerry called to tell me my experience as a German shepherd owner would prepare me for a poodle and they had the perfect one for me to start with, my heart sank. But I kept quiet. My kids didn’t.
“A poodle! No way!” Aviva wailed when I broke the news.
“I thought we were getting a cute dog!” Josh said.
“Yeah, me, too” is what I didn’t say. Instead, I told them
in the infuriatingly sanctimonious voice I use when I have the moral upper hand that we weren’t volunteering with NEADS so we could have a cute dog, we were doing it to help others. Truthfully, I needed the reminder as much as my children did.
KERRY HAD GIVEN me the phone number for the prison captain in charge of the puppy program at the J. J. Moran medium-security facility in Cranston with instructions to let him know I was a new puppy raiser and would be taking Jones out that upcoming Friday. I had already sent in my vitals—name, birth date, social security number—and I had passed the criminal background check. Never one to let a teachable moment pass, I let my kids know that it pays to stay on the right side of the law, because I wouldn’t be allowed in the prison if I’d had a felony conviction in my past. They nodded their heads solemnly, having learned to humor their mother.
I dialed the number and got the NEADS liaison, Captain Nelson Lefebvre, on the phone.
I was pleased to find that he was talkative. Not in a genial, storytelling, “I got a million of ’em” kind of way. He was just very thorough. I doodled floppy-eared cartoon puppies in a notebook while he gave me some background on the program. He had helped to bring the first pair of prison puppies to Rhode Island three years earlier, and now there were a dozen puppy-inmate teams between Moran and the state’s other medium-security prison. I liked Captain Lefebvre’s voice. It had a pleasant, gauzy quality, like it was filtered through a layer of muslin. I decided I liked him, too, after he asked whether I’d ever visited the puppy house on the NEADS
campus. When I told him I hadn’t, that we’d only spent time with five puppies as part of orientation, he urged me to go sometime. “I’ll tell you, Sharron, when things are getting to be a little too hectic and stressful around here, I’ll go up there and just play with the puppies. That’s my therapy.” I stifled laughter as I imagined a burly, hardened prison captain rolling in the grass, giggling while a litter of puppies pounced and licked his face.
He asked whether I’d been in a prison before and I told him just once, when I was a reporter, but it was a prerelease center and the inmates were all out on work release. It looked like a college dorm.
“Yeah, this is different,” he said. “Do you have a pen? I’ll describe exactly how to get here and how to get inside.” He gave me directions to the prison and told me that once I got there, I would check in at the reception building, which was separated from the main prison by a courtyard. The guard on duty would pick up his phone and call the guards in A-block, where the dogs and their handlers lived.
I’d be admitted to the courtyard through a set of double doors and gates, enter the main building through a large lobby, and wait to be buzzed in to an area called “shift command,” which was where the prison lieutenants and captains went about the business of running a prison. That’s where the puppy exchange would take place, monitored at all times by the officers on duty. The inmate would come down with the dog, a report to fill out, and food for two days. If I had any leftover food at the end of the weekend, I was to keep it. Puppy raisers are not allowed to give inmates anything except the dog and the paperwork. I scribbled frantically in my notebook, trying to
form a map of the route in my head but coming up only with images from the movies—Alcatraz perched on its rocky island, Tim Robbins digging his way out of Shawshank—except in my version, there were puppies.
I hung up feeling reassured, but on Friday, when it was time for me to actually go to the prison to pick up Jones for the first time, I was jumpy and nervous. I tend to feel uneasy when I’m doing something new for the first time, and in this case, that was compounded by the fact that I was about to bring home a fully grown male dog, who had somehow merged in my mind with the prison, leaving me feeling like I was bringing a convict into my house. (As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off.) I fretted, too, about meeting the inmate, whom I pictured as a skinhead with roughly hewn prison tattoos and a dangerous leer—perhaps to counteract the prissy French poodle on the end of his leash.
When I turned off the main road, the complex of state buildings where the prison was located did not help my state of mind.
J. J. Moran Medium Security Facility sits at the edge of a dead-end road, the last stop on what I came to regard as a scenic tour through human despair. One of the first buildings off the main road is the juvenile detention center, its tiny exercise yard enclosed by a chain-link fence that arcs inward to keep the young inmates from climbing over it. The state psychiatric hospital is a couple of doors down, across the street from a homeless shelter. Great clouds of steam billowed from an underground vent in front of the shelter, shrouding its crumbling redbrick edifice and partially obscuring the shabbily dressed figures who waited on the steps for the doors to open for the night. The final turn took me past the state’s minimum-security
prison, an ancient towering facility with windows large enough, perhaps, for a man to fit through. On this day, an inmate pressed his face to the bars of one of them, dangling his arms outside, touching freedom.
By comparison, Moran isn’t that bad. There is no mistaking it’s a prison—it’s surrounded by double and triple rows of high fences and razor wire—but it’s one of the newer buildings, constructed in the early 1990s, and it sprawls across twenty-nine acres, which gives it an open, airy feel. At least from a visitor’s perspective.
I found a parking spot and sat in the car for a moment, considering my pocketbook on the passenger seat. I hadn’t asked Captain Lefebvre about carrying a purse into the prison and he hadn’t mentioned anything, but somehow it didn’t seem right. It seemed too . . . I don’t know, breezy, to waltz into a prison with a flower-embroidered purse slung over my shoulder, like I was going shopping. I scanned the area to make sure no one was watching, then stuffed the pocketbook under the passenger seat.
I forced my mind to go blank as I picked my way toward the entrance. It’s a trick I learned as a newspaper reporter, when I’d be sent to knock on the door of an alleged mobster or to interview the family of a crime victim. As long as I don’t think, I can function.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the gloom inside. A skinny man with gray hair and a handsome face was sitting behind the desk.
“Hi. I’m here for a dog. He’s a poodle?”
The guard reached for a phone on his desk and looked back up at me. “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Jones,” I repeated.
The guard stared back at me a long moment before chuckling and shaking his head. “Who names these dogs, anyway?” Before I could answer, he was talking loudly into the phone: “I need the handler for canine Jones,” he said, drawing out the name like a game-show announcer. “Send him over to the brass’s office.” He clicked the receiver button and pressed another number. This time his tone was professional, respectful: “Captain, dog handler on the way.” He hung up and looked at me. I looked back.
“Umm, I don’t know where to go.”
He gestured for me to pass behind his desk to a set of steel and glass doors.
“Do I have to walk through that?” There was a metal detector positioned off to one side.
“No, no. We don’t make the dog people do that. You guys are special.”
I relaxed a bit. His jokey tone was familiar from my time spent in police and fire stations. I took a lot of ribbing back then for being a female reporter who dared pierce the inner sanctum of the uniformed male. And for being short. Guys think that’s hilarious for some reason.
The officer leaned over some paperwork while I walked past him and to the door. When I turned the knob and pushed, nothing happened.
“Ummm. It won’t open,” I said, my level of comfort starting to plummet.
“He has to buzz you through.” The officer pointed to the
next room, where I could see an older man watching me through tinted glass. I heard a buzz. “Now you can open it,” he said. I pushed, but again, nothing happened.
“You missed it. Wait for the buzz and try again.” I heard the buzz, paused, then pushed. Again, the door refused to yield. It reminded me of trying to unlock the car door as someone is lifting the handle to open it. The guard behind the glass held up his finger. I waited, my hand poised on the knob, feeling more foolish by the second. I heard a faint buzz and leaned my weight against the door. It opened. “Got it!” I said a little too triumphantly as I stepped through and let the door slam heavily behind me. I was standing in a vestibule before another door identical to the first and had to go through the entire process again, only this time I made sure to push the door as soon as I heard the buzz. When I stepped through, I was back outside, facing a set of towering gates, beyond which lay the rest of the prison. Stretching out on either side and in front of me was a double row of nineteen-foot fences. Coils of razor wire bulged from the bottom up to the height of a tall man and again at the top, encircling the rim of the fence. When a bird landed delicately between the blades, I flinched reflexively.
The inmates at J. J. Moran live in cell blocks and by the clock. There are six low concrete buildings housing two tiers of cells each, which from the ground floor look like rows of numbered broom closets, except each has a tiny window. Segments of time are announced through a PA system that snakes through the prison complex, emerging here and there through perforated metal plates bolted to the walls. If you happen to be standing next to one of the speakers during an announcement, it will rattle the teeth in your head.
The day starts at seven fifteen, when inmates are let out of their cells for breakfast. If you don’t like what they’re serving and you have money in your account, you can eat ramen noodles or a foil pouch of tuna fish, but only if you planned ahead and ordered them from the commissary. Some of the inmates have jobs to report to after breakfast. But they have to be done before lockdown, which happens twice a day.
The day ends at eight forty-five with lights-out. If you’re a dog handler with a young puppy, you can flick your cell lights on at ten thirty to signal the correctional officer on duty that you need a final trip outside before being locked up for the night. But that’s the most variety your day will have.
For someone who’s used to hurrying headlong through life, always late for one thing or another, the process of getting into the shift command offices where the dog waited was agonizingly slow. All of the doors and gates at Moran come in pairs; you have to wait for the first one to close behind you before the second one opens, like the airlock to a space station, or a butterfly garden. Which is exactly what I had blurted out on the phone to Captain Lefebvre during our conversation when he described the double-secure exit and entry procedure to me. He was silent for a moment, possibly processing the image of monarchs and swallowtails beating their wings against the locked steel doors. Finally he simply said, “I’d never thought of it that way.”
The first gate slid open and I stepped inside to face the second one. For a few uncomfortable moments after the gate shut behind me, I was caged between the two, like an animal caught in a Havahart trap. Then the second gate slid open to a wide manicured courtyard bisected by a concrete path and
lined on either side by mulched beds. If not for the barbed wire on either side of me, I could have been on a college campus. The courtyard led to a vast, echoey tiled hall that smelled faintly of an indoor swimming pool. At the far end were two doors separated by a span of tinted glass, one marked “visiting.” I headed toward the unmarked door on the left, remembering Captain Lefebvre’s instructions. The door slid open before I reached it.
The journey into shift command made me feel simultaneously overly trusting for allowing a successive series of doors and gates to lock behind me as I ventured deeper into the prison, and incredibly important for being granted access to such a protected space.
A dark-haired, teddy-bearish man in a dusky blue uniform was waiting when I stepped through the final door. He was about my age and had kind brown eyes. “Sharron?” I recognized Captain Lefebvre’s voice. He held out his hand and I shook it, hoping my palms weren’t too sweaty. “Come on in. The inmate’s on his way now.” Captain Lefebvre led me down a short hallway that widened slightly into a vestibule that looked out onto the prison yard. A photocopy of a New York Times article about prison dogs was pinned to a bulletin board.
He invited me to take a seat in his office, a small room with pale yellow cinder-block walls and spare furnishings. I sat on a rolling desk chair, planting my feet firmly so it wouldn’t skitter out from under me on the tile floor while we chatted about my drive to the prison. I thanked him again for giving me such detailed directions. He was about to answer when a short buzz broke through our conversation. “Here he is. Come meet your dog.” I followed Captain Lefebvre’s broad back into the vestibule, where a large man in khaki-colored prison scrubs was
leading a black poodle through the door. The inmate bounded over, a wide grin on his round, boyish face, and grabbed my hand in a warm handshake. “Hi! I’m Lance. And this is Jones.” He stepped back and gestured proudly at the dog. Jones was as skinny as a licorice stick, his body so long that the blue NEADS vest covered only his shoulders. It looked like he was wearing a fashionable woman’s shrug. Jones considered me coolly from beneath his curly pompadour while Lance described in rapid-fire speech the commands Jones knew, his feeding schedule, his quirks. He probably would have gone on to tell me about Jones’s favorite television shows if Captain Lefebvre, who stood by with his arms folded tightly across his barrel chest, hadn’t stepped forward to catch Lance’s eye and nod toward the door. Lance handed me Jones’s leash and his food for the weekend. When I turned to leave, Lance called out, “Oh, I almost forgot. Jones has a very strong prey drive, so keep an eye on that.”
Prey drive? I didn’t know what that meant and considered possible interpretations as I said good-bye to Captain Lefebvre, then waited with Jones for the first series of doors to slide open. The looming metal fences seemed less intimidating on the way back, although that could have been because I was distracted by Jones, who jogged through the courtyard while I skidded along behind, turning over the phrase “prey drive” in my head. Maybe it was prison slang. We waited before the final set of locked doors. Jones whipped his head toward a leaf skittering by on the wind. When the buzz sounded I pulled hard on the knob and pulled him along beside me into the vestibule. The officer in the reception area swiveled in his chair and watched us through the glass. When the second door buzzed open and we stepped inside, he let his jaw drop in exaggerated shock. “Whoa! What is that thing? A horse?” He
shifted his gaze from Jones to me. “You could ride him out of here!”
“Next time I’ll bring a saddle,” I called over my shoulder as Jones led me out of the building. When we reached the parking lot, we scared up a flock of small birds. Jones, who stood higher than my waist and was over half my weight in solid muscle, launched himself into the air after them, nearly carrying me with him into flight. The clear plastic food bag spilled to the ground as the dog lunged and dipped and dove and lunged again while I clung to the end of the leash, attempting to land him like a kite in a hurricane. Eventually I managed to reel Jones in hand-over-hand until his collar was within reach. I grabbed tight, yanking him along as I hopped over to the spot where the food bag lay, thankfully unbroken. Then, afraid another bird would land within view, I hustled Jones to the car, where I stuffed him into the backseat and slammed the door before he could muscle his way back out. Now I knew what prey drive meant.
I hesitated before starting my car but drove home with Jones anyway.
Jones demonstrated his prey drive again and again over the next two days. When I got him home, he behaved like an unruly child fresh off a Skittles and Mountain Dew binge. He pranced from room to room, hopping on the furniture and standing on his hind legs to get a better look out the windows. On a sweep through the living room, he scattered a Lincoln Logs housing development that Josh had under construction, then stole a small green bear from a toy box and carried it around the house while Josh complained loudly and I deployed the object-exchange strategy to extract it from his mouth. My eyes were spinning in
my head, trying to keep up with him. Tucker never behaved like that. None of the dogs we’d had in our house did. I wanted to put Jones in a time-out. Or hold him down and force-feed him Ritalin.
Marty, who always looks for the positive angle of any situation, complimented Jones’s spirit. However, much later he confessed to me that Jones reminded him of Mombo, a standard poodle from his childhood who would ambush him on his way home from school and try to eat his face.
Josh tried to avoid Jones and Aviva thought he was the ugliest thing she’d ever seen, but at some point during the weekend she asked to take him outside on the leash. She aborted her plans about three seconds in, though, when he tried to drag her into the woods and up a tree after a squirrel. Walks were great fun for Jones, miserable for me. Jones would start out on high alert, plumed tail held high, eyes darting back and forth. I quickly learned to distract him with treats when we approached known trouble spots, which started the moment we stepped onto the sidewalk. To our left, tethered to the neighbor’s railing on a long cord, was Peekaboo, a declawed cat. To our right was a yellow Lab mix named Bailey, and next door to her was Amy, a Jack Russell terrier. Jones would take the treats I held out, snapping hard at my fingers while I rushed him straight ahead through the gauntlet of known distractions. But I couldn’t avoid the surprises, and there were plenty of them. There were wild rabbits that turned suicidal in the presence of Jones, hurtling out of the underbrush and across our path. Chipmunks would race across the sidewalk like tiny remote control cars, their tails pointing straight up like antennae. Jones would bolt after each one, dragging me along with him or ripping the leash
out of my grasp, leaving painful red rashes on the palms of my hands. Jones went after two-legged and wheeled creatures, too: joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, fast-moving children—he didn’t discriminate.
On the second day of Jones’s second weekend with us, I decided to walk him only after the sun went down, when it was too dark for either of us to see anything. This solved the problem of walking Jones, but his overactive prey drive kicked in at other times, as it did when Aviva brought the two little girls she was babysitting over to our house. I had left Aviva to introduce the girls to Jones when I heard screaming. I ran in to find Jones leaping happily on the four-year-old, who was shrieking and desperately trying to cover her face with her hands. Aviva was grabbing at Jones’s collar, trying to pull him off, while the girl’s older sister pummeled his back and head with her fists. I yanked Jones away and into the dog crate, sliding the latch in place behind him. Jones was too tall for the crate. He stood hunched over like a jackal, his curly bouffant sticking out the top between the grates, panting through an openmouthed smile.
Later, when Aviva returned from delivering her charges safely home, she faced me, hands on her hips. “Mom, you’ve got to get rid of that dog.” Her tone sliced through me, releasing the vast reserve of doubt I harbored about my parenting skills.
I went on the defense in an attempt to quench the guilt. “I made a commitment.”
“Mom! That dog tried to kill Claire!”
“Well, I wouldn’t say he was trying to kill her . . .” Aviva drew in a breath, but before she could strike again, I told her I would
call NEADS. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it under control.” Those were familiar and, I was afraid, hollow words to my children because it was clear that I had very little under control. Other families ate together each night and planned fun vacations and educational activities. In ours, dinnertime snuck up and surprised me each night like it had never visited our house before, and I’d rush to throw together something that the kids would eat (Marty, wisely, came home late). For entertainment, I’d open the front door and point the kids outside so I could have some peace and quiet. It’s the way I grew up. My own family was more a fractured collection of individuals than a cohesive unit. Then it broke apart completely when my father packed up and moved out and my older brothers left for college. I just didn’t know how to run a family, and here I was, wrecking things again by bringing a killer poodle into the house.
I called the NEADS coordinator, Kerry.
THE NEXT WEEK, Kerry was standing in my kitchen while I rooted through the deli drawer in my refrigerator for a plastic-encased stick of string cheese to use as dog bait. Her plan? To train Jones to ignore his killing instinct. Her method? Teaching Jones to play the children’s game Mother May I?
We spent the next half hour or so in the backyard facing Aviva’s two bunny rabbits, Snoopy and Malted Milk Ball. Kerry would lead Jones twenty feet from the bunny hutch and ask him to sit. He would obey but lock in on the bunnies, every nerve in his body ready to spring toward them. Then Kerry would tell Jones, “Let’s go,” and they would take a few steps toward the bunnies, stop, and Jones would sit. Kerry
tore off a piece of cheese and fed it to Jones each time he was able to move toward the bunnies without straining on the leash. When he failed, they would return to the “start line” and repeat the process. Before Kerry left, she told me to practice with the bunnies every day that I had Jones. I did. And all I can say is, I’m glad those bunnies were safely caged, because each game of Mother May I? invariably ended with me peeling Jones off the hutch.
That feeling of dread I had the first time I went to the prison? It didn’t go away as I became more accustomed to the weekend routine. In fact, it got worse (encouraged, of course, by Jones). During our first phone conversation, Captain Lefebvre told me that some puppy raisers show up for the first time, then never return again. I could see why.
After a while, hallelujah, Kerry was forced to accept the depth of Jones’s prey drive. She and another NEADS trainer furloughed Jones and two or three puppies to a city park. All of the dogs were interested in the pigeons but Jones would not, could not, be distracted from them.
Her voice was somber over the phone: “We’ve decided to release Jones from the program.”
“Release? What does that mean?”
“We’re taking him out of the program.” A friend of the family who fostered Jones for the first fourteen months of his life would be adopting him, and Kerry assured me that Jones would be much happier living his life as a pet dog.
I silently cheered.
“He’ll be up at NEADS for a few days, though, if you’d like to come visit him, or say good-bye.”
“No, that’s okay. I’m good.”
I’M THE KIND of person who doesn’t give up easily, but only if people are watching. Otherwise, I abandon all sorts of projects. Somewhere, stuffed deep in a bag in the basement, a needle and thread still dangles from an A in an embroidery sampler I began when I was pregnant with Aviva. The first A in her name, not the second one. If not for my unwillingness to let Kerry down, I would have conceded to Marty that he was right, our lives were chaotic enough without bringing an untamed convict dog into it. And who knows? Maybe I would have quit anyway if I’d had longer to think about it. But the leash burns on my hands had barely healed when Kerry sent me an e-mail request to take a three-month-old puppy named Daisy. Not sure I wanted to try this again, I clicked on the attachment anyway, and there she was—a tiny yellow Lab the color of buttered toast, looking straight into the camera. I felt a smile spreading across my face as I took in the wrinkled brow, the tiny black nose. Now this was more like it.