[This entry was written and submitted for posting by Brian Hall, an incarcerated resident of the Alaska Department of Corrections.]
I remember sitting in the hole (segregation unit) for a year long program after receiving disciplinary action for bad behavior (fighting again) when I first heard about a Dog Program coming to the prison. At the time we were being housed out of state, and this was something new. The dogs would live with us in our cells, and we would train them for basic obedience. This would hopefully make them more adoptable. It sounded like a really awesome program, and I hoped to get the chance to participate, but first I had to get out of the hole. One step at a time!
I received a letter from one of my closest friends who I've known since we were kids going through the juvenile system together. At the time we were allowed to send mail to other inmates, even those being housed in the same facility as our own. We were both arrested as juveniles, charged as adults, and had aged into the adult system some years prior so we were more like brothers than friends at that point. He said that he had been accepted into the Dog Program, and would soon begin his training on how to train and handle dogs. I was really excited for him and had lots of questions. Nobody really knew how to answer any of my questions because it was a new program for our prison system.
Being that I was in the hole, I never got the chance to see the dogs, but I knew they were there. Several of my friends had been picked as trainers, and I would get letters and read about all of their stories. It sounded like they were enjoying their new responsibilities.
I decided to set a goal for myself. I wanted to be a dog trainer! Only problem…I still had to do more hole time. At first I told myself there was no way that I could get out of the hole and be a dog handler. I felt like it was such a far away goal that I wouldn't be able to reach, but I was willing to try.
From that point on I focused on doing the programs that I could from within the hole. Anger management, life skills, studying for my GED, and anything else that I could do, I did. It felt good to do something positive!
After 13 months of no write-ups and completing all the programming that I could, I was let out into general population again. I thought, "Yay for me! Now let me see a puppy!" The only dog I had seen for the last 10 years was a K9 dog, and who wants to pet those, not that I could even if I wanted to.
My friends were happy to see me after so long in the hole, and I finally got to see their dogs! It brought a huge smile to my face. Watching them interact with their animals made me want to be a part of the program even more, but I still had some things to do before I was able to reach my goal.
A lot of times, we lifers don't get the chance to set a positive goal for ourselves that involves facility resources, or take a lot of the programming offered due to the length of our sentencing. Most of the programs are geared towards short timers. The thing I really liked about the Dog Program was that the staff specifically wanted people who had significant time to do. It gave us a purpose (which I learned we all need) and the ability to give back something positive.
I set out to get my GED and to continue on a path of staying out of trouble. I joined a substance misuse program pod where the inmates lived together and shared their stories of addictions and how to live a life of recovery. I learned about my addictions and how to deal with them. I ended up learning that I had another passion, and that was helping others with their recovery. This made me feel good, and gave me a feeling of self-worth in that I was helping my peers. I've continued to stay clean and live a healthy lifestyle. I'm very proud to say that I'm a recovering addict for over 18 years now.
A spot opened up in the Dog Program and I jumped at the chance to try and interview for the position. Unfortunately, I was denied! I was blown away and felt hurt that I wasn't picked, but things happen for a reason and I wasn't gonna let it throw me off course. I decided to work harder and learn about dog training on my own. After all, my friends had been doing it for awhile now, and who better to ask than them. I continued to stay focused with my recovery and learned about dog behaviors on the side. Funny thing was, there were a lot of similarities between negative dog behaviors and our own as inmates.
A year later I interviewed for the dog program again, and this time I was picked! This was a very happy time for me and I felt like things were going good. Having self-worth, accomplishing my goals, and living a clean and sober life…this was all a person could ask for!
I spent the next six months going to classes where I began to learn about dog obedience training. We had some outside volunteers who would come in twice a week and teach us everything we needed to know. These folks didn't treat us like convicts. Their love for the dogs and what we were trying to accomplish allowed them to see us as men who were trying to change and live a better life. They never asked us what we did to end up in prison, they just cared about how we treated our dogs. At first it was strange to talk to a normal person who wasn't family, but given time and my growing passion for training dogs, I began to feel more comfortable around them.
After they felt like I was ready, I moved in with another trainer who just happened to be a friend of mine. He had a Pitbull mix named Lola, and I was happy to live with a dog. Of course, she just looked at me like whatever at first! It took awhile to build a bond with her, but eventually I did!
Training a dog taught me how to have patience, how to communicate properly with others and to care for something and someone other than myself. Having been in prison for so long, and at such a young age (17), I had become selfish. I truly can say that becoming a Dog Trainer has made me a better human being.
Knowing that this dog that I have been training for six weeks or more will eventually go to a family who will love and care for them is very rewarding for me. It gives me a purpose in life behind these bars that I might not have had if I didn't take the time to change my behaviors and become a better person. I've been training dogs now for the past 15 years, all while in prison. It's something that I'm good at and that I love doing. Every dog that I've trained has taught me something. The dogs don't care that I'm a convicted felon and doing life behind these bars. They just need some guidance and a little training to get on the right path. Kinda like I did when I first came to prison, although it took a little while to realize that. Hopefully one day I'll get another chance and continue to train dogs in the free world. Until then, I'm proud to say I'm a dog handler!