That dog you see, with the deeply soulful copper eyes–that’s Skye. She’s what folks around here call a “Kentucky Brown Dog,” vernacular for “No one really knows what she is except brown…hound…and of Kentucky.” She was pulled from a high-kill county shelter down in the southeastern part of the state and brought to Oldham County, where she was placed with a local no-kill rescue organization and enrolled in Paws Behind Bars, a training program for dogs, located inside the walls of Luther Luckett Correctional Complex (LLCC).
And now she’s mine. Well, mine and my Curly Girl’s. We adopted her in celebration of my 40th birthday.
These things we know about her so far: 1) She loves her people. 2) She does not love bunnies, squirrels or chipmunks and would happily nose them out and chase them all to their terrified deaths if we’d let her. 3) She loves other dogs. Except for that one enormous Dane we saw on a walk and CG thinks maybe Skye thought it was actually a horse. 4) She is highly motivated by treats. (Who isn’t?!?)
A fine man and pastor I once knew, who died too soon and unexpectedly a couple of years ago, had, unknowingly, a great deal to do with getting Skye to us. He started the Paws Behind Bars program at LLCC. Out of his love for dogs, and his care for the inmates he served as chaplain, he envisioned a way to help both dogs and inmates. As a result of his vision, I visited LLCC one afternoon in early May so that I could meet both Skye and the inmate who spent over a month, 24/7, getting a skittish, withdrawn, underweight stray ready to be a family dog.
Entering a prison–even a medium security one such as LLCC–is daunting business. There are guards. And guns. And heavy doors. And metal detectors. And strict protocol. And then suddenly I was inside and in front of me was this dog and this man in drab prison khaki, about my age, who clearly cared about her and who had done his best to train her for life on the outside.
“Can I show you what she can do, ma’am?” he said, and as I smiled and nodded yes, he took her through all her obedience paces, proving to me she could sit, lie down, stay and come at his bidding. “She hates cold water,” he said, “and she likes to have her stuffed teddy bear in her crate at night. She loves to be petted and groomed, too.”
I nodded. Smiled as Skye sniffed my hands and then my face with a hopeful and inquisitive nose.
Then he said, “Really, ma’am, if ever I’ve trained a family dog, Skye’s it,” adding, “and I just want her to be loved.”
“Sir,” I said (wondering if ever this inmate had been called “Sir,”), “thank you. I think I’d like to take her home with me. And I promise you, we will love her.”
And we will (do) love her. But as we do, two thoughts hang out in my head. The first is that how we treat our animals says a lot about us as a society. The second is that how we treat our humans says a lot more.
As I chatted with Skye’s inmate-trainer, and saw what good caring for and training her had obviously done him, I thought of my almost/surrogate/sort of little brother, convicted of robbery a couple of years ago and now serving a sentence at a state prison down south, and wondered, for the thousandth time, if prison was making a more whole man of him. Will he emerge, like Skye, ready for life on the outside, or will he simply wither and fall under the weight of his surroundings, of the life he was handed and the choices he’s made?
I don’t know. What I do know is that somehow the conscious decision to rescue a dog trained inside a prison was rooted in a desire to do something about brokenness. About strays and rejects. About lives that don’t turn out the way we’d hoped they would. About systems that are failing and lives that are on hold inside those systems. I don’t really understand it–I just know choosing Skye felt like doing something for goodness. Something for hope.
And if there is anything we all need more of, it’s goodness and hope. So I’ll take them where I can get them, spread them around as I am able, try to live out both more fully.
Or, as my daughter’s preschool taught her to pray before meals:
Bless the elephants and the hummingbirds, the pigs, the mice and the ants. Show us all how to live in peace, so that all creatures may have long and happy lives. Amen.
All creatures, indeed.