Joey, My Prison Puppy (16) By Edna Merle
I was exceedingly depressed when I went to prison at thirty-five years old in 1995, not only because of the diagnosis of mental illnesses I acquired but because I was facing seventeen years in prison. My life was essentially over.
But the hard shell that surrounded me surrendered to the heart of God, allowing me to finally be free from the ways of my past. I began to breathe freely like inhaling a new kind of air. I was finally learning to love myself.
So began a renewal of my mind – my life. For the first time in twenty-six years, I was a drug free.
I felt like an emotional child, excited and happy to be alive, which was new for me. The unexplained fear I’d felt all my life was gone.
The prison years rolled on and the longer I was drug free, the happier I was. Then, in August 2002, I was chosen to be part of a new program called Inmates Practicing Animal Care and Training (IMPACT) at Metro State Prison in Atlanta.
Six puppies were paired with inmates for socializing, obedience, and distraction training. These puppies were the first in a Georgia Women’s prison and would become guide dogs for the blind, if everything went right.
The other inmates and I were like one big family with six babies. We couldn’t stop smiling. We had one year with these pups and we were overjoyed.
My puppy was Joey, a blond Lab with the silkiest golden ears and velvety chocolate eyes. The tiny pads on the bottom of his paws were the softest things I’ve ever touched. I loved to put his paws on my face with my nose between the furry spaces of his toes and just breathe. I loved my puppy’s smell.
He was eight weeks old when I became Joey’s mom. Less than one month later, he weighed thirty pounds. He tilted his head when I talked to him. I knew that meant he was asking a question, even if it was only, “Huh?” I could never get enough of Joey. We were a team.
Joey was a gentle soul who played nicely and never barked unless something was wrong. I heard him bark one time. But he did snore ever so sweetly. His expressive eyes communicated exactly what he wanted or needed. He followed me everywhere, and when I hid from him his eyes lit up when he found me. I could see how much he loved me. I hugged and squeezed him and he returned my love. He knew he was loved, I made sure of that.
People said Joey was neurotic because I loved him too much. So what, I thought. He didn’t like to stand on wet grass or get dirty. When the other dogs had free play (free-dogging), he ran and played for a while and then stood on the sidewalk and watched the other dogs from afar.
He disliked cold water on his body and hated being hosed off, crying until it was over. That broke my heart, so Joey got warm baths instead, for which he was thankful.
That year it was so hot that Joey didn’t want to “work” when I put his little blue coat on signaling it was time to get to work. He would lie with his legs stretched awkwardly pretending to be sick or injured. He would run to a shady spot and throw himself down. It was important for Joey to want to work, so I had a plan. I sang to him to lift his spirits. I tried all sort of song until I the right one.
I personalized Frosty the Snowman to Joey the Snowman. He liked the word snowman. It really perked him up. His tail would wag as I sang, then he would stand and off we’d go to “work.”
Walking up and down the prison compound, I sang Joey the snowman – poo pee doo pee doo pee doo, boo pee doo pee doo pee doo pee doo pee doo pee doo pee doo, over and over until we were finished.
The inmates and staff thought I was nuts but I didn’t care because Joey’s tail swayed to the song, with a pep in his step, his head held high. So I knew he liked it and that’s all that mattered to me.
One evening we all took the dogs out for a walk. That was the first time I say Joey smile. He looked right at me and smiled. The sides of his mouth curled up and he showed his pretty teeth. I couldn’t believe it. I yelled, “Joey smiled.” This dog was wonderful. He would smile and wag his tail. “What a good dog,” I would tell him and hug him.
Once a week Joey went with me to Yoga class. He did movements along with me. Since I was on the floor, he thought it was playtime. He’d slowly crawl and push himself closer and closer to me with just his back legs, keeping his front paws still, so that I wouldn’t notice until he would suddenly be face to face with me. Everyone was amused by Joey’s antics even though he did disrupt the class.
I remember one day when we were leaving yoga class and were walking towards the door, Joey stopped and looked at me and said, “ORRWEEGA!” Then he stretched into the downward dog position and back to stand. It seemed that he had just said, “I love you.” I picked him up and squeezed him and said, “I love you too.” The two yoga instructors said in unison, “Awwwww.”
Joey and the other IMPACT dogs graduated a year after arriving. They were going off to professional guide dog school in Florida.
We were sad but had anticipated this day and were prepared for it.
Even as of this writing ten years later, I think of Joey and smile. He didn’t make it as a guide dog and was adopted by a loving family. I still miss him and I’ll never stop loving him. I will always be thankful for the chance I had to know him. Joey was a great dog, and my only son.