What do you see when you look into a dog’s eyes?
When most people think about prison, dogs are probably the last thing they think about, let alone expect to be inside of it. About a year and a half ago, I received the opportunity to join a dog program called, “K9 Corrections,” inside of the Maine State Prison. At the time of joining the program, I had been incarcerated for eleven years.
I decided to join the program for several reasons. For starters, from an early age I have always loved animals. Animals have always provided me comfort and I have usually gravitated towards animals who needed the most TLC. Maybe this is because, when I look back into the eyes of a scared and fearful dog, I see myself staring back. When I look at a dog who is petrified, cowering in fear, I see the trauma and suffering I endured at an early age.
The main purpose of K9 Corrections is to provide dogs with the necessary training that will make them adoptable.
Many of the dogs that come through the program of K9 Corrections, in one way or another have problems that need correcting. These issues can include anything from aggression, a lack of socialization and fear, to counterconditioning and the need for basic obedience training. But nothing is as challenging, emotionally and mentally, as watching our trainer, walk into our prison pod with a dog that is trembling from his/her ears to his/her tail.
Nothing is more heart-wrenching than experiencing a dog who is paralyzed by fear, unable to recognize that hand reaching for it upon arrival into the program, is a hand that only wants to love it and stroke away all the pain and suffering that makes it tremble.
I wish, at an early age, such a hand had advanced in my direction. At the age of five, my mother placed me in the custody of the Maine Department of Human Services. Trapped in a destructive cycle of alcoholism and drug use, my mother felt as though she was unable to care for me. Despite loving me tenderly, my mother feared that she would eventually hurt me. My mother had issues of her own, and in moments when she could not control her anger and pain, she displaced her frustration onto me with several slaps and hits. While very young, I mistakenly learned to associate love with anger and abuse. To make matters worse, this association would only become more muddled when my mother terminated her parental rights and when DHS placed me into foster care at the delicate age of six.
So, how, then, do you make a dog understand that the hand reaching for it means it no harm?
In the answer to this question lies the secret in training fearful/reactive dogs. Many of the prisoners inside of the Maine State Prison have stories similar to mine. Very early in life, they were exposed to abuse, neglect, abandonment, and constant disappointment. Like the dog that retreats behind the table, shaking uncontrollably, and who refuses to come out despite our coaxing, many of us inside the prison have learned that it is safer to withdraw from the world, retreating deep into ourselves. It is safer to keep the world at bay than to take the chance of getting abused, neglected, or let down once again. We became strays, learning that it is better to care for ourselves; it is better to look out for number one because it seemed that we were the only ones who would. I understand why the dog before me would rather hide under my bed – because I did the same thing as a kid to escape an angry hand.
At the age of six, I found myself bounced from one foster family to another. In each home, my experience of people only became that much more distorted. I now understand why dogs often retreat when strangers reach for them. I quickly learned in many of my foster homes that the same hand that feeds you will often be the same hand that inflicts unimaginable suffering. I was often left alone, unfed, and uncared for- many of the foster families favored their own children, neglecting my basic needs. I often sat alone, watching and longing for love, I saw, but I could not receive. My clothes were often ragged, I usually went to bed hungry, and I soiled myself at night out of fear that I would receive a beating for waking up my foster parents. So I began to retreat within myself, developing behavioral problems of my own. I began to act out; externalizing the pain, suffering, and longing that tortured me internally.
In the same way a fearful dog will bite a helping hand, I started to lash out at the world, even taking my pain out on a foster family who loved me despite my behavioral problems. Not knowing how to control me, better yet, not knowing how to desensitize me from reacting to stimuli, the State of Maine decided to place me in a residential treatment program. These types of programs make up what is often called “the system.”
Lilah, who is a lab mix, is my latest dog. She came to us in a state of panic. When the trainer brought her in, she shook profusely, and for two entire days, she would not eat nor drink. Any time we brought her into our living area she would shut down and shake. Lilah was inconsolable, and any sudden movement or noise triggered her fear. For the first day, I simply laid perfectly still on my floor beside her. I noticed that she watched my every move; her eyes tracked mine and she readied herself to react to any stimulus. It is uncanny how dogs will often mimic our behavior. As I laid on the floor, Lilah gradually became as relaxed as I was. I placed a blanket under my desk and made a little fort for her. She quickly associated this as her safe place, and each time I stood up to move around the room, I would notice her peeking out from her fort to watch me. By the end of her first day, she let me pet her. I sat on the floor for the greater portion of the evening gently stroking her neck. Touch is an amazing thing, as I held her in my arms, loving her and channeling all I had to give in each store, her muscles responded by becoming less tense.
After entering the system at the age of eight, I found myself transferred from one residential placement to another. I remained in these treatment facilities, I longed to be part of a family and desperately dreamed of a forever home. Instead of unconditional love, I received care in the form of four point restraints and copious amounts of Thorazine and Adavane in many of those residential treatment settings.
Caseworkers, social workers, psychiatrist, and psychologists were the only family I knew. Staff members often took advantage of the power they had over us and they frequently found ways to take their discontentment with life out on us. I was jerked around on an invisible leash, forced to follow cruel orders, and punished for superficial transgressions. My fear and mistrust of people only became stronger with each jerk of my leash. I was expected to be unquestioningly obedient. All I wanted was the opportunity to go out and explore the world, but my owners chose to have me tethered to my prison of fear and pain instead.
Dog trainers and animal behaviorist often say that dogs learn bad habits inadvertently from owners who are unaware of what they do. Humans do not differ in this regard. Growing up in the system taught me many maladaptive coping skills. Humans learn, just like dogs, how to adjust normally to abnormal situations. We inadvertently internalize our environment for the sake of survival. In essence, overtime, our environment conditions us to act in a certain way; more times than not, these ways are self-defeating and destructive. The sad reality is that people who purported to help me actually taught me my own bad habits.
Like a dog that learns to guard its food and toys, and who also learns how to be cute to get snacks, I learned how to manipulate people’s emotions – making them feel bad for me. I learned how to lie about, and hide, my real feelings. In essence, I learned how to bullshit my way through life, deceiving others into believing I just did not care. In fact, I cared more than they could possibly know. I wanted their attention, their love, and their acknowledgment. I wanted to feel love as though I mattered as a human being. Each one of my barks was really an invitation for someone to get closer. Every time I ran away, I was really testing someone to see if he or she cared enough to chase me.
In the time I have trained dogs, I have come to learn about myself, for dogs teach us as well.
The greatest lesson I have learned thus far is the capacity to care for something or someone besides myself. This is why dogs are so therapeutic in the prison setting. While in prison, we are almost completely deprived of a loving touch. Of all the things I miss, I miss the presence of a loving hug, a passionate kiss, or a compassionate embrace, the most. When a person is deprived of these experiencing, one learns how to be cold and indifferent rather quickly. It is a matter of survival and self-preservation, not a matter of personal choice. Nevertheless, when I have a dog, a dog who greets me with an energetically wagging tail and a million licks to the face, I am reminded every time just human I really am. Having the opportunity to lie on a bed with a dog and pet it is a rewarding and cathartic substitute to the human alternative. In essence, having a dog in prison provides us with the opportunity to reawaken forgotten emotions so we can become more empathetic and understanding towards others’ needs.
When dogs enter this world, they quickly begin to learn what is socially acceptable in the doggie world. Mothers often check unruly pups, and siblings will often keep their siblings in line. Much like humans, dogs learn about their world through experience and exposure. Dogs need other dogs to become properly socialized, and to become confidently independent. But, at times, this does not happen. Sometimes a storm can displace a litter of pups, turning the entire litter into strays. Other times, dogs are taken away from their litter too early when another family buys them and brings them to their home. The most dreaded scenario to consider is that of a neglected or abused puppy. In any of these cases, dire consequences are involved. If not properly socialized, not only by their siblings, but also by the humans that surround them, dogs may develop aggression, lashing out at others. Unfortunately, the media is laden with stories about what happens to these types of dogs.
Human beings do not differ in these regards. If neglected and not properly socialized at an early age, humans run the risk of developing problematic behaviors. Considering that we learn love through the ways our family cares for us, if that care is absent at an early age, our understanding of love becomes distorted by traumatic experiences. This ultimately creates a warped conception of love in our minds. If our primary caregivers do not provide the nurture we desperately need, like a dog who is left neglectfully in the backyard, we will find ways to get our needs met. The problem is the means we utilize to meet our needs are often destructive, making our already disparaging situation even worse.
I am serving a thirty-year sentence, twelve years of which I have already served. Despite that depressing reality, when I look into a dog’s eyes, I see hope. Hope that self-transformation and change is always possible.
It is incomparably rewarding to watch a dog undergo transformation in our program. To watch a once fearful dog, a dog who refused to come out from under a table, start to trust people, approaching them with a wagging tail, testifies to the power of love and compassion. It is a blessing to observe the effects of what love can do, especially to a damaged and innocent soul.
The same is true of human beings. If we take the opportunity to invest time and effort in people who are often simply misunderstood, the outcomes are amazing. Many of the people I live with in prison have untapped and unrealized potential. Few, if any, have ever taught them the worth of their humanity. Few, if any, have just laid with them for a little while, allowing fragile and malnourished souls to feel a loving presence.
To be able to give a dog another chance at life is profoundly fulfilling experience. Dogs have taught me that change is always possible. Despite whatever damage we may have incurred at an early age, the ability to experience healing is always a loving stroke away. I have learned how to be patient and how to sit and appreciate a silent moment with a companion. I have learned love is the greatest gift we can give one another, it is the medication that produces the best results. All of my dogs have taught me something, and they continue to remind me of the need to exercise more understanding, compassion and patience in my daily life.
So, I ask again, what do you see when you look into a dog’s eyes?
Dogs for the training program are provided by K9 Corrections. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/K9Corrections/.
Mathiew Loisel is serving 30 years at the Maine State Prison. When he is not training dogs, he teaches math and English to his peers, volunteers for Hospice, and is currently working on his bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies. If you wish to send mail to Mathiew, you can do so at:
Maine State Prison
807 Cushing Road
Warren ME 04864-4600
All incoming prisoner mail must have a verifiable name and return address. Also if you want to include his address Mathiew would love the contact with the outside. Prison is lonely and receiving mail is great for mental well being.
Image courtesy of Anoir Chafik.