Our new dog Haley has been with us for almost a week. She’s a 2-3 year old yellow Labrador Retriever we decided to adopt last month.We couldn’t have hoped for a better dog to add to our family, and her transition into our home has been virtually seamless.
We drove to Aberdeen last Wednesday to watch Haley’s graduation from HAVA Heart rescue’s Freedom Tails program at the Stafford Creek Correctional Center.
Freedom Tails takes dogs that would most likely be euthanized in animal shelters and gives them “a second chance at life” by pairing them with offenders who improve the dogs’ chances of adoption by teaching them “socialization, housetraining, and much needed obedience skills.”
So far the program has saved about 275 dogs. Haley’s “class” has 11 dogs in it.
The graduation ceremony for Haley’s class was held in a large day room inside the prison. All of us adopters who came to pick up our dogs sat in a few rows of chairs set off to the side of large, open area in the middle of the room. We all fidgeted nervously as we waited for the trainers to bring in our dogs.
The trainers and their dogs walked into the room single file and made several different formations while having the dogs change directions several times. They finished their entrance by forming a circle, asking their dogs to sit and stay, and walking around the circle until they came to their dogs again.
To show how well they trained the dogs, the trainers then used a series of hand signals to show the dogs would sit, stay, and heel without verbal commands.
They ended the training demonstration by having the dogs run through a makeshift obstacle course.
While the trainers put the dogs through their paces all us adopters in the audience craned our necks to find our dogs. I don’t have kids, but once I saw Haley I felt like a proud parent watching his/her kid graduate high school.
After the procession each trainer brought his dog to the center of the room, faced the adopters, and told us a little bit about the dog they trained over the past 10 weeks. Some of them only spoke briefly. Others went on for several minutes.
But regardless of how well or how long the trainers spoke, the dedication, commitment, and love they had for their dogs was apparent. For some of the men, their relationship with their dog was the most significant connection with anyone or anything they have ever had.
After the trainers spoke about their dogs, each of the adopters sat down at a table with his/her dog and its trainers to ask them questions we had about our dogs. Each table had a note card with the dog’s name and picture.
James and Frank trained Haley. James was the lead trainer, and I think Haley was the fourth dog he had trained. I sat with them for about 45 minutes while James proudly told me everything he taught Haley, provided an in depth explanation of her habits and idiosyncrasies, made sure I knew her favorite snacks (popcorn and peanut butter), and told me her nickname (Wiggleworm).
He also gave me Haley’s “diary” which contained detailed entries describing what Haley learned each day.
While we spoke, Haley laid obediently between us. James gave me her leash to hold, but all her attention was focused on him. I doubt she recognized me from my earlier visits.
Eventually the adopters began to leave with their dogs. I could have spoken with James for another couple of hours, not just because I wanted to hear more about Haley, but also to avoid taking Haley away which I knew devastate both him and Frank.
Unfortunately, the schedule for the offenders at Stafford Creek was not flexible or negotiable, so I couldn’t extend our visit any longer, and the moment arrived for me to leave with Haley.
Until then, James and Frank had maintained a stoic facade, but when they realized Haley was leaving with me and they would probably not see her again, their eyes reddened and filled with tears.
As I prepared to leave with Haley, James gave me the notecard with Haley’s name and picture on it, but I didn’t need it since I would be taking hundreds of pictures of Haley, so I said he could keep it.
He gently took the card from me and looked at it lovingly before putting it in his pocket. I imagine he kept the note cards for all the dogs he trained in Freedom Tails and posted them in his cell.
After I gave James the notecard I shook hands with him and Frank. We then went our separate, vastly different ways.
Thank you for training Haley, James. You did a fantastic job.
(I’ll write about Haley’s arrival at our house and how she is doing later this week.)