First Impressions

You and the Correctional Center are more than an hour away.  My friend, Marianne, has kindly  agreed to accompany me. We begin our journey with a bag of Hershey Kisses on the console between us. The morning of the scheduled visit is dark and rainy. Fast, heavy, winter rain that bounces big drops on the windshield and pools on the roadsides. My wipers can barely keep up. The tires motor boat, the steering wheel pulls. I slow down. My mind races faster than the wipers swish to clear the windshield. What am I doing? Can I make you happy? Can I love another dog? Will you like me? I’ve seen your face. Read your bio. I doubt you even know that I am coming. Marianne’s kind words soften my anxiety. I persist through the rain, allowing conversation and chocolate to distract my thoughts.

The roads become more narrow and less inhabited as my excitement grows. At last, a sign, with words, softened by the rain, announces our location at the prison.  There are acres of fencing, topped with rolled barbed wire. Chain link. A strong fence that bends. Concrete towers form corners. There must be guards in there, but I can’t see them.  Lunenburg Correctional Center. A stark place. Big and foreboding. Especially in the rain.

We park in the guest space and run to the front door to avoid getting soaked.  We were advised we could not wear a jacket or jeans to the prison. No pants with metal, or jackets that could conceal. No purses. We were to leave them in the car. We were to deposit our driver’s licenses and keys at the front desk, along with the signed “rape/molestation prevention” document that we reviewed prior to our visit. We timidly pushed open the front door. There was a huge open room with institution green cinderblock walls. A worn rug was anchored with a couch and 2 chairs. The walls were covered with portraits of past and current governors. The current warden smiled from his portrait  as well.  To the left, looking down on us, was a glassed in room , that appeared to be  control central. There were several guards there and an abundance of computers and other electronics. In front of us was a desk. The guard behind the desk, smiled and motioned us forward. The sign on her desk read, Director of First Impressions.  I chuckled, welcoming the comic relief.

I turned over my license and signed “rape” form. I had to surrender my watch and take off my shoes. I was directed to walk through the metal detector. Something set it off. I jumped at the noise, certain the guard would think I was trying to smuggle something in my underwear. I stepped aside and was wanded. It was my underwire bra. I was ok. I breathed a sigh of relief and donned my shoes. I’m nervous about meeting you in your environment. But, I’m also excited. This is like CIA, FBI, spy stuff to me. I’ve never been in a prison. Unfortunately, Marianne didn’t make it through the metal detector. Her artificial knee kept her grounded. I would have to venture onward without her. Just me and the guard. Soon I would meet you face to fur.

It was still raining. There were several doors and gates to go through to get to you. I couldn’t keep count of the buzzes or clicks of doors as we moved from building to building. There wasn’t any activity going on outside that I could see. No dogs. No inmates. Only cold, hard rain. I was nervous. Not just about meeting you. But even encountering your inmate. Would he find me capable of handling a hound? Never mind him, will you like me Dwight?

At last we get to the building. There is another metal detector and another guard at the door. I am cleared to go in. It’s a large open room with a few metal folding chairs on the periphery.  There are 2 men in blue denim shirts wearing large black framed glasses. They tell me their names. I immediately forget them. I nod and offer my hand in greeting. Your trainer smiles and shakes my hand. I feel more at ease.

Then you make your grand entrance. You are so skinny. My first impression is ribs and legs. Dang you’re tall. You lope through the room, nose to the floor, ears cupped around your face. You are on a mission. Oblivious to us all. Then you pee and poop on the floor. Your trainer apologizes, saying, you don’t like the rain, as he cleans up the mess. I sit in a chair, speechless, watching the show.  One of the men brings you over to me. I try to look into your eyes. You avoid my gaze. I pet you. You pull away. Your trainer gives me pieces of hotdog. This gives you pause. You look at the hotdog and sit nicely, waiting for a treat. I look at the trainer and sigh, “I’ll take him.”


The Dwight Decision

You can’t put the worth of a dog in your pocket. That’s what my grandfather said. He had hunting dogs. He took them up the holler with him; gun in hand, dogs eager for the hunt. They stayed with him until he gave the command. Then the hounds would run rabbits and foxes down from the ridge to my grandfather’s ready rifle. When the hunt was finished, he blew his old brass “dog horn.” Good working dogs, they obliged him, trotting back to the pen in the back of the house. He named all his hounds. Trouble, Lucky, Smokey and Sputnik. Even though I knew they were well cared for, I still felt sorry for those dogs. I wanted to pet them . I wasn’t allowed. My grandfather scoffed, “Sure way to ruin a good huntin’ dog.” Working dogs. That’s how it was back then. That circle of life thing. Foxes killed nesting hens. Bunnies ate the garden. Working dogs chased them both. My grandfather lived off the land. He taught me to respect your kind. Dwight, my food comes from the grocery story, so, I promise you. No hunts. No pens in the backyard. I want you to share my home.

It was your eyes, brown and amber, ringed in black, sharp and soulful. I stared at your picture on the website many times. Your eyes always gave me pause. You must have been looking directly at the camera lens, which gave your gaze a look of confidence. Your long velvet ears framed your muzzle, begging to be twirled and petted. The white line that split your brown snout, like spilled milk, was dotted with brown freckles, pierced with black whiskers. There was a small pink furless patch just above your black leathery nose.

I read your description. Dwight. Hound mix. Fifty pounds. Would do well with children. Gets along great with other dogs. Currently receiving training at Lunenburg Correctional Center. There were three images of you posted. Two close-ups of your handsome face and one long shot where your legs took up three fourths of the frame.

I must have logged in and out of the website five times a day, checking to make sure you were still there. I just couldn’t commit. It was only three weeks before Christmas. A dog could be the perfect addition under my tree. But, John and I were headed to Colorado the week before Christmas, to see our boys. Will moved out in October and Patrick left in early November. I’d already missed them at Thanksgiving. This would be my first Christmas without them. I was sad. Both boys had to work the ski slopes Christmas day, so we decided to visit before the holidays.

I knew we would be returning December 21, dealing with Mountain Time jet lag and recovery from 10,000 feet of altitude. With only four days to prep for a Christmas gathering, I really didn’t need a new dog underfoot as well. But truthfully Dwight, the biggest stumbling block to my commitment to your adoption, was another dog. My best dog friend, Trudy, died in July. She was part of our family for 15 years. She was by my side through lots of good, and plenty of rough patches. Trudy was my touch stone and confidant. Watching her decline over the past year was difficult. Oh, how I loved that dog! I’m in that “I don’t think I ever want to feel that way again” sadness of losing a pet. I still miss her. By December my nest was very sad and empty. Maybe I needed to wallow in it. Could I make room in my heart for another dog? Could you fill that hole left by the boys and Trudy? Was that an OK reason to invite you into my life? They say having a baby can’t save a failing marriage. Can adopting a dog revive an empty nest? I’m just not sure. But your face kept calling me back to the Pen Pals website.

The Pen Pals program pairs a shelter dog with an inmate. You were a lucky dog to be saved from the shelter to go to prison for training. Your inmate was fortunate to share his cell with you for five months. This partnership aims to provide life skills to inmates, while training and socializing shelter dogs. If I adopted you, I was saving a trained dog, while providing valuable skills to an inmate.

I started filling out the Pen Pals paperwork, thinking I might adopt after Christmas. I supplied 3 references, gave the name of my vet and answered all the questions about my “dog history.” I described my accommodations and my neighborhood. The final question was, “Which dog are you interested in?” Out of the six dogs pictured and detailed on the site, I picked you, Dwight. My application was complete. Now, I waited. If approved, I still had to pass the home visit. The Pen Pal program also advises potential adopters to meet their dog before finalizing the deal, to insure a good match.

With all those hurdles, I figured I’d be lucky to welcome you to our home by February. Imagine my surprise when I was contacted to set up the home visit and a meet and greet at the prison, before going to Colorado. I was excited and nervous. You see Dwight, I take my responsibilities seriously. Your health, happiness, and adjustment will be on my shoulders. I am already helping care for my mom who lives 2 hours away. Can I add a dog to the mix? There’s also freedom in an empty nest. John didn’t want to be tethered to the house by a dog. He wasn’t on board for a new housemate. He advised me to play and walk the new puppy next door. Playing with that pup only confirmed that I needed an adult dog. I wasn’t up for puppy energy and training. After all, you had 5 months of training under your collar, and a few years on you. All my dogs have been shelter pups and I’ve loved them all. Yes, I was ready. I think. I hope. I made the call. I was going to prison to see a man about a dog.