Would a companion dog trained by a prisoner work for her?
Huge coils of barbed wire spiraled along thick concrete walls. Guard towers loomed overhead. A knot formed in my stomach. What am I doing here? I wondered as my husband, Don, and I got out of the car in the parking lot.
We were there because of Sadie, our beloved dog. She’d passed away unexpectedly a few months before, leaving us grieving and unsure of what to do next. Sadie had been more than a companion. She’d been a service dog, assisting me with basic activities my multiple sclerosis made difficult: picking up things off the floor, balancing, walking long distances. The waiting list for another service dog could take years. And I had no interest in trying to “replace” Sadie. I thought maybe we weren’t meant to get another dog. Until my friend Diane called a few weeks after Sadie passed.
“Lin, I know you’re not sure about getting another dog,” she said. “But the prison system has a program for inmates to train companion dogs. An organization I’m involved with works with them. It might be worth looking into.”
“Maybe,” I said, unconvinced. It was too soon. Besides, there was a huge difference between a companion dog and a service dog. Still, I scrolled through the website. At least I would be able to tell Diane I’d checked it out.
Not even halfway down the page, one dog caught my eye. A black Labrador retriever named Trixie. There was no picture, but the description said she was nine years old, obedient and sweet.
“Why don’t we go take a look at her?” Don said over my shoulder. That’s how we found ourselves at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility a few weeks later. Trixie was actually being trained at a correctional facility for men, but all dogs in the program were first shown at the women’s prison.
We signed in and went through security, my heart thudding in my chest as the doors clanged ominously behind us. I couldn’t imagine what life in prison was like. Finally we arrived at a drab gymnasium filled with other people waiting to meet the dogs.
Am I really ready for this? I thought.
“Now, Lin, remember,” Don said, “we don’t have to take this dog.”
Before I could respond, the dogs were led into the gym by a line of women in dark green jumpsuits. Trixie was at the front, prancing with all the confidence in the world, looking more beautiful than I could have imagined. She came right over to us and raised her paw to say hello. Then she put her head on Don’s knee and rested her paw on his leg. He was smitten.
“Well, should we keep looking, Don?” I joked.
“Not!” he said.
We weren’t able to take Trixie home until a few weeks later. When we finally picked her up, we left with an armload of papers. Among them was a handwritten diary from Jacob (not his real name), the man who had been Trixie’s trainer at the men’s prison.
“The time has come for me to say goodbye to Trixie,” Jacob wrote in the last entry. “I love her and will miss her, but am enthusiastic for you to have a great companion. Please remember to take it easy with her since she’s an older dog and don’t keep her outside in the heat too long.”
I felt my heart melt. These did not sound like the words of a hard-bitten convict. I vowed to pray for him every day. I couldn’t wait to show the journal entries to Diane.
“You have to read these,” I told her the next time we met. “Trixie’s trainer has such a good heart.”
Meanwhile, Don and I were planning to attend the graduation ceremony for a prison ministry called Kairos. It was run by our friends—including Diane. Its mission was to develop Christian communities inside prisons through weeklong programs. The day before the ceremony, Diane called me, excited.
“Lin,” she said, “you won’t believe this, but Trixie’s trainer is here and will be participating in the Kairos graduation ceremony tomorrow. I recognize him from his Trixie journal entries.”
Normally, the dog trainers remain anonymous, so it was a complete surprise to learn that we would be in the same room as the man whose words had moved me so deeply. Jacob had been one of 42 men chosen to participate in Kairos from 242 applicants. Diane went on to say that he had been selected by his fellow participants to speak at the commencement.
“I spoke with the team,” she said. “You have permission to meet Jacob.”
The next day, Don and I headed to the prison. I still jumped every time one of the iron doors banged shut.
The ceremony room was crowded with volunteers like us, who were attending to make sure the room was filled and the graduates felt celebrated. Soon Jacob stepped up to the podium. “Hello,” he began, then shared his prisoner number, followed by his name. Hearing him recite that number as if it were the most important part of his identity broke me a little bit. How can a man be a number? I wanted Jacob to know how important he was, that he was loved and valued beyond any inmate number.
He talked about how much the Kairos program had meant to him, how he had forgiven himself and started praying again. I was impressed by how well-spoken he was. He got a big ovation when he was through.
After the ceremony, a Kairos staff member brought Jacob over to us. Don clutched my hand, both of us too overwhelmed with emotion to speak.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said. “How is Trixie?”
“She’s wonderful,” I said. “Although she won’t let me brush her teeth!”
“It’s not you!” Jacob said. “The first time I brought out the toothbrush, she stuck her head between the wall and her kennel.”
We both laughed, the tension broken. When he saw a photo of Trixie lounging in our bed with our cat sleeping beside her, tears filled his eyes.
Kairos and the dog training program filled my heart with compassion for prisoners. Jacob had hope and passion and a love of God. We weren’t allowed to know what crime he had committed to get sent to prison, but it didn’t matter. He was a beloved child of God.
We kept talking, and Jacob told us how much training Trixie had meant to him. “Working with dogs gives me the feeling that, even though I’m in prison, I can still do something worthwhile for other people,” he said.
What a wonderful thing, I thought. I wondered if I could have been so positive if I were in his position.
“Jacob, remember Philippians 1:6,” Don said to him before we left. “‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’”
“Thank you,” Jacob said.
“We need to do something for Jacob,” I said to Don on the way home.
The prison officials granted us special permission to write Jacob letters. He couldn’t write back, but that was okay. He didn’t need to.
We’ve had Trixie for two years now and continue to write to Jacob regularly to let him know that we’re praying for him. Friends at Kairos informed us Jacob was so good at dog training, he’s now moved up to training service dogs for children with autism. He also helps lead a men’s Bible study and told Diane he prays for Don and me every day. And Trixie? Well, she’s just darling. She loves everybody and is just about the sweetest dog I’ve ever known. We keep Jacob updated on how she’s doing.
We end every letter by quoting Philippians 1:6 and reminding Jacob that he is more than a number and that the Lord is with him. It’s a reminder to me too: Even the walls of prison aren’t thick enough to keep out goodness, hope and light.
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A Dog, a Prisoner, and a Surprising Prayer Partner