Bennett May’s Pen Pals Exit Story
The following is an exit story written by Bennett May, a wonderful handler in the Pen Pals program who recently moved to a different correctional facility. We will greatly miss Mr. May and appreciate all the work he has done for so many dogs in just a few short years. Good luck in all of your future endeavors!
We all have a tendency to do what works. Does that make it right just because it works? Sometimes, we just want instant results, no matter the cost, as long as we’re pleased with the end result. Oftentimes, with dog training, we use methods that appear to work, but they leave us feeling guilty after we apply them. Truth is if you feel you need to apologize to your dog after a training session or you feel bad, you need to find a better way for you and your dog. People who say love hurts probably haven’t experienced real love. Love is a happy, good feeling that flows without much effort.
I was taught at a young age how to use conventional training, which usually involved intimidation or physical punishment to get the dog to comply. I saw results, so I assumed it was working. I felt the dog knew I was in charge and he was there to comply with my commands. Ironically, it took me 35 years to learn how misinformed I was about training, in a place where violence and control is an everyday occurrence: prison.
I entered the Pen Pals program in December 2010 thinking, “I’ve got a leg up because I’ve trained for years.” I quickly learned I had it all wrong. I had a lady trainer who loves hounds and fearful dogs, neither of which I had ever trained before.
My first fearful dog was Turtle, a boxer mix. Up to this point, I had dogs that were pretty easy to train. I finally got her inside and both of us were wondering where to go from this point, both of us were scared. I was scared because I honestly didn’t know where to start and I can assume she was scared because up to this point, Turtle maybe felt all humans sucked.
I didn’t know where to start with her. I read book after book trying to find an answer. What works for one dog might not work for another. So I did the opposite of what 99% of books I read told me to do: I put myself in her paws—if I were stressed, I wouldn’t want to be hovered over or forced to do stuff. I would need time to get to know you and begin to trust you. That’s when things clicked for me. I realized Turtle needed a partner in her journey, not a drill sergeant. She needed structure as all dogs do. She needed structure to fit her personality until she could build her confidence and trust that I would be with her and she would have nothing to fear if I was there.
I took what she gave me and put those behaviors on cue. This opened our lines of communication. She understood “I do this behavior and I get access to something I want.” Once she caught on, she soared from there. Her first cue was “What’s up,” a head twitch I captured. Years later, I got an update from Turtle’s adopters and “What’s up” is still her favorite cute. Her fear issues are still there when she is out and about. However, with her training, she has learned to cope with her fears. Her adopters understood who she was and her limitations.
Oftentimes, our dogs take the brunt of all our frustrations. It’s not our dog’s fault you don’t like your coworkers or there was a traffic jam or it’s raining. Fido is just glad that you’re home and he forgot already about yesterday when you came home in a bad mood. Does he deserve to carry all your life’s burdens? He is a dog, not a psychologist. He is your partner, your loving companion. If you give him consistency, he’ll love you even more because you two have the understanding of what the other wants.
Like it or not, most of our dog’s issues [have been] reinforced inadvertently. Fido knows how to be a dog and a lot of the behaviors are natural dog behaviors. Take time to understand what he is trying to tell you and be sure he is understanding what you’re telling him.
This isn’t a story to offend any trainer, conventional or otherwise. This is just a story of what the dogs I encountered in the program taught me when I finally took the time to listen to them. I’ve loved all my dogs, in and out of prison. I’m not sure I loved the dogs in the right manner before this program. Choke chains, leash corrections, et cetera; I’m sure I caused pain to those dogs and as I said before, real love isn’t supposed to hurt.
Once we thought lead paint was a good idea until we found out it was harmful. Whatever training you apply is your choice and I’m not here to judge and I have no power to say what is right or wrong. Just know if you get that feeling in your gut that it’s wrong, just think what your dog may be feeling.
Twenty plus years in a prison and it took a dog to make me realize how selfish I was in the past. Unfortunately, you can’t always say “sorry,” but you can learn and do your best to become a better human being. We’re all still learning and we make mistakes, but once you learn, you should never repeat your past.
Thank you, Pen Pals, for the mirror you gave me: the scared, hopeless dog paired with a scared, hopeless prisoner who, together, found the right way to do things.