In February 2013 I received a call from Animal Care & Control of NYC (AC&C) asking if I could take three Pit Bull mix puppies. Glen Wild Animal Rescue normally works with adult dogs, but I had recently founded Rescue Dogs Rescue Soldiers and thought this would be a great time to start training some pups.
The three pups arrived — thanks to transport arranged by AC&C’s New Hope Department and the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals‘ Wheels of Hope program. Looking back over their arrival and their time here with me, it’s obvious they were sent here to fulfill a purpose.
As part of our program we name our dogs in training after fallen soldiers, with the families’ blessings. With great honor, we named one of the pups Farrell (after Sgt. Shawn Farrell), and the second pup was named in honor of Don Starr (the deceased father of one of our trainers who had served in the military).
The third pup was a beautiful male with blue eyes, tall and strong. I had a feeling he would be a good match for Manny — a young college student who works in my Shelter Dog Training Program. In fact, the pup, now named Rocky, has found a great permanent home with Manny.
Back at the sanctuary, I began training Farrell and Starr — who I called “the sisters.” Soon, they started to accompany me and my adult dogs to two upstate juvenile detention centers. The pups loved these visits, and what amazed me is how they instinctively knew what to do. Once at the facilities they would jump out of the van and run and play with the young men we were visiting. At the same time they were being socialized and receiving basic training. I did not realize at the time that all this was preparing them for a very important job!The training with the pups was going very well and I knew that Farrell would make a great service dog, as she loved to retrieve. Starr was very sensitive and was looking good as a therapy dog. I knew that these pups were special and, when the time was right, I would know what to do in regard to their placement.
A few months into their training, I was contacted by a Deputy Commissioner at Rikers Island (part of the New York City Department of Correction). She had heard about my Dog Assisted Therapy Program and was hoping I could bring it to Rikers.
I agreed to meet with her and her staff at the jail. I must admit I was a bit nervous. Accompanied by one of my therapy dogs, Tasha, we were welcomed with open arms. I am proud to say it was an historic day. Tasha was the first therapy dog to step “paws” on the Island, and she even got to visit one of the juvenile boys’ units, which was a great success. I was thrilled. I was invited to bring the program to Rikers.
As I drove home, I began to plan for this incredibly important initiative. I needed dogs who would be comfortable with large numbers of people in a busy environment, the many checkpoints, and the loud noises as the gate opened and closed (pretty much like the noise you hear on Law & Order).
Then the proverbial light bulb went on in my head — the sisters, Farrell and Starr!
Their first visit was unforgettable. The sisters slept most of the way on the drive from Glen Wild to Queens. But, as we approached the jail’s security gate, I asked them, “Are you Rikers ready?” And although they had never been to a jail before, they instinctively knew it was time to go to work.They forged ahead, marching right up to the front door. The “PISSSSHHHHHHHHHHH” noise of the lock popping open did not faze them one bit. They stormed the hallway — chests out front as if to say, “We are here!”
Our first unit was the adult male mental health unit. One by one, with Correction Officers close by, the residents came up to the dogs and were visibly happy to meet them. We heard stories of how many of them missed their dogs at home; one resident even ran and got a picture of his dog.
There was one inmate who, according to his clinician, never came out of his cell. Yet, he did for Starr and he even touched her! My nervousness subsided and I saw how much love and happiness Farrell and Starr were bringing to these men who really needed it.
Then we went on to visit the juvenile boys and girls, and the women’s jails. Farrell and Starr’s tails never stopped wagging, and the residents participated and totally enjoyed the experience.
After our first visit, weekly visits were set up and we have continued to see more and more involvement by the residents we visit. They appreciate what we do and they love our dogs.
As I drove off Rikers Island, I noticed the large sign at the entrance. It stated “Home of New York’s Boldest,” and I thought, yes, these sisters are bold and they are doing a job that they were put on this earth to do.