Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ten years to tell a story

October 22, 2014

When Deb Donnelly and I arrive, the teams in Unit 8 are ready and waiting for us. Puppies are settled on mats with Kongs and Nylabones at the ready. 

A low shot of a young black lab puppy lying on a green thick mat. To the left are the lower legs of the puppy's raiser, he is wearing blue prison pants and black shoes, his right hand is just visible between his knees. The puppy is wearing the blue Future Leader Dog bandana and there is a red Kong on the mat by his right shoulder. The puppy's head is resting on the mat.
A relaxed FLD Eco seems to be listening intently.
Another low shot, this time of a small chocolate lab lying on the tile floor with his chin on the floor between his front paws. He is just behind the lower legs of his raiser, who is also wearing blue prison pants and black shoes. To the left in the background is a blue mat, but the puppy chose to lie on the floor instead. There is also a yellow, green and blue Nylabone puppy chew toy on the tile in front of the mat.
FLD Hershel, on the other hand, doesn't seem interested. What is it about the floor that is more comfortable than his mat?

Deb has lots to talk about. She's come from a circular road trip to prisons in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin before getting to Baraga and continuing on to Chippewa. She reports that Minnesota's Lino Lakes Correctional Facility, which started raising puppies in July of 2013, had their first puppy issued to a client the day before. Leader Dog "Lino" is now a working guide dog.

With the return of the first Baraga puppies looming in December, the men are interested about the process. Deb explains that Leader Dogs for the Blind takes in 44 puppies each month. Leader Dog veterinarians can only accommodate 11 dogs a week. (This places a demand on the breeding department on the other end.) When the puppies return they are subject to a series of medical exams and x-rays to assure excellent health. Some are pulled for breeding; those that aren't are spayed or neutered. About 14 percent are career-changed for medical issues. The rest go into formal guide work training.

"We always train more dogs than we need," Deb says. Up to 24 blind or visually impaired clients in a given "class" live in the Polk Residence at Leader Dogs for about three and a half weeks. Here they learn to care for and work with their new partner. Extra dogs are necessary so the trainers can make the perfect match with each team.

There are questions about what will happen in December when she comes to bring FLDs Axel, Bear and Copo back to Leader Dog. Deb suggests that the men develop a "good-bye" ceremony for themselves, something that can be consistently recreated for each puppy that leaves.

Saying good-bye to your puppy is hard, no matter whom the puppy raiser happens to be. After returning five of my own puppies I can attest that it never gets easier.

"The dogs do way better than the people do in this," Deb says. "They adapt very well, most of them, very quickly. It's like going to camp for them." A collective sigh and the looks on the men's faces make me believe they are not quite convinced.

A black lab is lying on a thick green mat between the legs of his raiser, who is sitting on a lunchroom table stool. The man is on the left side of the table and is wearing blue prison pants and a long sleeved white shirt. His elbows are resting on his knees and he is looking up toward the right. A second man is sitting on the stool opposite on the right. He is also wearing the blue prison pants and a long-sleeved white shirt. This man also has his elbows on his knees leaning forward with his hands clasped. He is looking at the camera. In the background are two other men sitting at another table. The puppy is wearing the blue Future Leader Dog bandana and has a white Nylabone chew toy between his front paws, and a second one on the tile floor next to his mat. The puppy's chin is resting on his right leg and he is looking at the camera.
Ricky (left) and Doug (right) sit with their puppy. FLD Bear is one of the puppies slated to return to Leader Dogs for the Blind in December.
An african american man is sitting on a lunch table stool, bending over to pet a golden retriever puppy that is lying on the lile floor between the man's feet. The man is wearing the blue prison pants and a long sleeve white t-shirt and white shoes. The man's left forearm is resting on his left knee and he is petting the puppy's side with his right hand. The puppy is lying on its left side with its head toward the camera. He is wearing the blue bandana. A nylabone chew toy is on the floor by his head.
P reaches over to give a sleepy FLD Gage a pet. This little guy will be staying for a while, but P will be sad to see FLD Bear leave. P was promoted from FLD Bear's team to raise Gage.
A man wearing blue prison pants and a green jacket is sitting on a lunch table stool with his left forearm across his left knee and his right elbow on his right kneww with his chin in his right hand. The man is looking forward to the left. At his feet is a black lab that is lying facing right. There is a lunch table in front of the team, and another one in the back ground.
Black and FLD Copo, who is also slated to return in December.

Inmate raiser Black  will have it especially hard in December. He was promoted from FLD Bear's team to take over as Copo's raiser, so he'll be saying good-bye to two puppies.

Black feels so changed by this program that he recently made a generous donation to Leader Dogs for the Blind. (His job in the Baraga Correctional Facility pays him 74 cents per day.)

Deb feels their pain. FLD Jedi, the 20th puppy she's raised, is due to go back to Leader Dog within a couple of weeks.

A woman dressed in black pants and an orange fleece jacket is standing with her hands on her hips on the right of the picture. At her feet is sprawled a large german shepheard dog, he is practically lying on her feet with his chin resting on the tile floor. He is facing to the right. On the left of the picture is an african american man sitting on a lunch table stool facing the woman. He is wearing the blue prison uniform and white shoes. At his feet in front of him is a small chocolate lab that is sitting on a blue mat with a yellow, green, and lbue nylabone puppy chew toy in front of him. The puppy is wearing the blue Future Leader Dog bandan and is facing the right.
Deb Donnelly speaks to the inmate raisers with FLD Jedi sprawled at her feet. Brown (left) sits with his charge, FLD Hershel.

"There's somebody out there who needs this dog more than I do," she says. She tells a story about one of the puppies she raised long ago. The puppy "graduated" and was matched with a young man, it was his first Leader dog. Deb got the chance to meet the painfully shy and reserved man. He had a difficult time speaking to her.

Some years later, when he received a second dog, Deb witnessed an amazing transformation. The man stood up in front of everyone. (Back then the graduating teams were introduced as a group to the raisers during "visitation" night at Leader dog. Now the puppy raiser has an individual visit with the new team.) Deb says he would never have done that the first time she met him. He announced that his goal was to meet one million people. He asked that each and every person should come up and shake his hand. 

With a catch in her voice, Deb says, "It took me 10 years before I could even tell this story."

A close head shot of the large german shepherd puppy lying across the woman's purple running shoes. The dog is facing the camera with his chin on the tile floor. His leash is lying on the floor by him and his left front leg and paw are across the woman's shoes. He is looking directly into the camera. He is also wearing the blue Future Leader Dog bandana.
FLD Jedi makes sure he stays close to Deb.


  1. Wonderful article. Very insightful and nonjudgmental. Thank you for your courage and ability to take great photos.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Although it is not me who has the courage. It is Leader Dogs for the Blind and the MDOC, in taking the risk to participate in this program, it is the warden and COs who make it happen, and it is the inmates who choose to look beyond themselves. I feel fortunate just to be able to witness it all.

  2. Wow - I have always wondered. When a dog leaves, are they already on the list to receive another one? How does that work?

    Monty and Harlow

    1. Thanks for stopping by Monty and Harlow! Right now the UP prisons can only accommodate eight to twelve puppies, and Leader Dog has been allotting two puppies per quarter to be assigned there. This way return of the puppies is staggered. If there are puppies available to replace the ones leaving, then Leader Dog will bring them in. The prison staff determines who is to get the next puppies coming in. As for when exactly the puppies come, why that's often up to Mother Nature!