Each second Thursday of the month, I find myself playing the same reluctant role of involved parent, as I take my son to his kennel club meetings. While, I love the members and all the fabulous work they do on behalf of the purebred dog, it hampers my nightly wine intake, keeps me up past my prescribed bedtime and forces me to be social, something my sarcastic, dry humored nature usually doesn’t translate well into. Despite my internal discomfort at social functions, I still found myself highly interested in one of our club’s supported projects; Prison Pups N’ Pals. This particular program takes dogs from a local shelter, pairs them with inmates and together they complete a 7week program that benefits both the handler and the canine. The inmates learn a valuable skill that may translate into employment when released and the dogs find work as either service dogs for veterans, narcotic detection or simply as a highly sought after well behaved pets. So when I was approached to speak to the inmates about grooming and how to maintain their canine trainees, I jumped at the opportunity and gleefully drug my partner in crime with me as well, Kristie Kingsland.
Before we even stepped foot on prison property the preparations began. Background checks had to be run (thankfully no knowledge of my underground moonshine operation was discovered) and a full list had to be comprised of what tools we planned to bring with us. Of course no shears were allowed, but thankfully the dogs were mostly lab/pit mixes. And despite apparently being sought after by the residents for tattoo machines, our dremmels and slicker brushes were permitted as long and we made sure they returned home with us. Which was truly a shame; I’ve been longing some new ink and what groomer could say they were tattooed by their own slicker brush! I was thinking Elvis riding a unicorn right on my neck.
Finally the big day arrived, and we found ourselves staring at the gates to the Tomoka Farms Correctional Facility. Instantly, I noticed that the traditional orange jumpsuit had been upgraded into blue scrubs. Essentially, with all the inmates roaming around inside the gates, it resembled Grey’s Anatomy, just with more razor wire. As we went through the check in process, all of our tools were examined and no personal effects except a car key were allowed. Hence, we were technologically naked with no cell phones. Although I must confess, I don’t think they’d want my ole 3G model and in fact I’d probably offer it up….I’m due for an upgrade. Also, the warden gave us a briefing and allowed us any questions about what expect. I, of course, casually asked that since they were allowed to work with dogs and be out some they weren’t in for violent crime right? In reply I got a reassuring, “Ummm…10yrs or less sentence.”
Feeling somewhat hesitant, we entered the facility and set up our presentation. It was a 70’s glam rec room sort of venue with chairs, 4 rows deep in a semi circle, around a travel grooming table. As we started, my partner received a tap on the shoulder from one of the men. Quietly, he handed her a car key that she had placed on a table, “Maam, you may want to keep that with you…we can’t be trusted.” I about died from the irony of the situation.
After setting up and receiving our well intentioned bit of advice, we began our program. The dogs were mostly, lab/pit mixes with one lone shar-pei in the corner. We discussed bathing procedure, product usage and handling. The big topic of the hour of with the men, of course was nail trimming. Figuring a demo was in order; we of course passed over the obvious nightmare of wrangling a shar-pei and went for a small lab mix. Kristie was ready to show them how easily it was to maintain nails and began to trim, instantly the pup turned into a bronco provided an opportunity to demonstrate muzzle usage. Of course, because the powers that be have a demented sense of humor, a nail was quicked. You would have thought we were performing Mayan sacrifice, the men stared in awe. We later learned that this particular pup has given these grown men enough guff that they’d given up; information that they somehow omitted when we’d chosen it as the demo. After settling the pup and finishing, we decided to split into 2 groups and aid the men with their individual dogs. Smartly, Kristie chose to do ears and I feeling guilty about her public bronco ride opted for nails. Payback came swift, as my first victim employed biological warfare with anal glands. Sweetly the inmates showed me to the open door restroom to wipe up my shirt. Yes, I could now say I used a men’s prison bathroom.
After, our initial hurtle, the rest of the pups were a breeze, including the shar-pei. The men had a plethora of question, including a deep interest in how grooming businesses are run and education was sought. As one of the inmates put it, “I ran a business illegally so long that I’m sure I could do one legit.” Turns out he was in for money laundering, but it was nice to have such enthusiasm. Of course the time flew by, and there was so much more that could have been discussed, however it would have to wait.
As we left the fortress of razor wire, it felt strangely satisfying to have visited the inmates. The majority had been young and appeared to have done some idiotic moves to get themselves in their current predicament. All had so appreciative that someone had bothered to take time out of their day to aid them and their dogs. They resembled their shelter pups in that they too felt forgotten and lost. It was great to not only see that these dogs were given purpose, but their handlers as well. Grooming/dogs has provided me such opportunities it was amazing to pass that on. Of course it’s easy to give a riveting performance to a captive audience.