A Change of Heart
It was a few minutes before nine on a Thursday morning. I arrived at the Greater Cleveland RTA rapid transit station with my service dog in training to meet seven Canine Companions for Independence® puppy raisers with their puppies and two graduate teams. We were there for a highly publicized field trip to downtown Cleveland, a chance to introduce the hopeful service puppies to the sights and sounds of Cleveland and to train in situations the pups had not yet experienced.
It was also an opportunity to showcase Canine Companions for Independence®, a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.
We greeted each other with smiles and wags, excited to have this opportunity. The puppies that day ranged from 5 months to 17 months and kept pace with the more mature graduate dogs. They were a perfect example of start and finish.
While parking my SUV, I spotted two other puppy raisers giving their dogs the “hurry” command in a grassy area that bordered the rapid transit parking lot. So I joined the group and while the pups took care of business, I noticed a gentleman walking toward us.
Naturally, I assumed that the gentleman was a part of the camera crew from one of the two television trucks that were there to cover our event.
“You’re Canine Companions, aren’t you,” said the gentleman, dressed in casual attire.
“Yes, we are,” I said, more certain than ever that this was our camera crew.
“I recognized the colors,” he said. “I was a puppy raiser. I trained four of them.”
Excited to meet a former raiser and convinced we would now get terrific news coverage, I asked him where he was from, thinking he might want to join our group.
“South of Marion,” he said. “I raised at the Ross Correctional Facility.”
After a moment, another puppy raiser asked, “Have you had any dogs graduate?”
“Four,” he said.
He bent down and asked if he could pet the dogs. “I always ask,” he said. We said yes.
“What’s your name?” I asked, in an attempt to gather additional information.
He gave his first name only and I shook his hand.
“Maybe you’d like to join us,” I said. “You probably could teach us a thing or two.”
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I can’t. That’s in the past. I’ve got to move on.”
Then he told us that he taught his pups thirty different commands, and that the other inmates made fun of him because he wouldn’t let them touch his dogs. “I told them that they were working dogs, not pets. The dogs changed my life, you know.”
“How so?” I asked.
“I was into a lot of things,” he said. “Then I got the chance to raise these dogs. They taught me that they had a job to do, a responsibility…you know?”
“And they taught me that I had responsibilities, too,” he said. “I knew I had to change. I raised four of them. They all graduated. Then I made early parole. I do the best I can.”
“That’s what we all try to do,” said another puppy raiser.
We shook his hand, and when he saw that we were heading toward the other puppy raisers gathered near the camera truck, he said that he had to go. “I avoid cameras,” he said.
And he got into his car and was gone.
Canine Companions for Independence® service dogs change the lives of people with physical disabilities. But that day I learned that they change hearts, too.