I ceded last week’s column to Prisoner 66129 at the Maine State Prison, and will do the same this week. Mathiew Loisel is more than a number; he is a man and it serves society when we look for the best in a person rather than the worst.

One of Mathiew’s most salient points in last week's essay about his prison graduation from college was for us to imagine what it would be like to be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done. Most of us wouldn’t want our spouse, our children, our friends, or society to measure us like that.

While Mathiew’s job now is to serve his time, learn from his worst moments, and prepare himself to contribute to the outside world, it would help to say good job, keep it up, pass it along, and pay it forward to others; you affect more people than you realize.

The essay that follows is powerful because seeing Mathiew in the same light as a defenseless, beaten dog creates empathy. Instead of judgment, perhaps if we understand how men like Mathiew were made, we will work to help them back into society, rather than shunning them.

Thank you, Mathiew, for helping these dogs get back their dignity, and thank you for showing us that even an abused dog is capable of, and desires, great love.

Keep up the good work, Mathiew. We are all continuing to learn.

“When you turn the corner/And you run into yourself/Then you know that you have turned/All the corners that are left.” ― Langston Hughes, poet, novelist (1902-1967)

‘Training the Neglected Heart’

By Mathiew Loisel

What do you see when you look into a dog’s eyes?

When most people think about prison, dogs are the last thing they think about or expect inside our walls. About a year and a half ago, I received the opportunity to join a dog program called “K9 Corrections” inside Maine State Prison. When I joined, I had been incarcerated for 11 years.

I joined the program for several reasons. For starters, from an early age I have always loved animals. They have provided comfort and usually I’m drawn to the ones who need the most TLC. Perhaps it’s because when I look into the eyes of a scared and fearful dog, the reflection is me. A dog cowering in fear and petrified; I feel the trauma and suffering endured at an early age.

The main purpose of K9 Corrections is to provide dogs with necessary training that will make them adoptable. Issues include aggression, lack of socialization and fear, coupled with a need for basic obedience training.

It is emotionally and mentally challenging to watch trainer Marie Finnegan walk into our prison pod with a dog trembling from ears to toes. It is heart-wrenching to watch a dog paralyzed by fear, unable to recognize the hand reaching for it upon its arrival is a hand that wants to love and stroke away all that makes it tremble.

I wish, at an early age, such a hand had advanced in my direction. At 5, my mother placed me with Department of Human Services (DHS). Trapped in a destructive cycle of alcoholism and drug abuse, she was unable to care for me. Despite loving me tenderly, she feared she would hurt me.

She had moments when she couldn’t control her anger, and her displaced frustration would find me with hitting and slapping. While very young, I learned to associate love with anger and abuse. This would become more muddled when my mother terminated parental rights and DHS placed me in foster care at the delicate age of 6.

So, how do you teach a dog to understand the reaching hand means no harm? The answer lies in the secret of training fearful/reactive dogs.

Many inside prisons have stories similar to mine. Early in life they were exposed to abuse, neglect, and abandonment ― disappointment was a constant. Like a dog retreating behind a table, shaking uncontrollably, refusing to come out no matter how much coaxing, many of us find it safer to withdraw from the world to retreat deep into ourselves.

It is safer to keep the world at bay then take the chance of getting abused, neglected or let down. We become strays, learning we need to take care of ourselves, look out for number one, as it seems we matter to no one. When a dog hides under a bed, I understand because that’s what I did to escape an angry hand.

Touch is amazing

From age 6, I found myself bounced from one foster family to the next. In each home, my experience of people became more distorted. I understand why dogs retreat from strangers when they reach for them. I quickly learned in my foster homes that the hand that feeds you can be the same hand that inflicts unimaginable suffering.

I was often left alone, unfed, uncared for ― many of the foster families favored their own children, while neglecting even my basic needs. Sitting alone, going to bed hungry, soiling myself at night and then fearing a beating for waking my foster parents, looking and longing for love that was in front of me, but unavailable.

I began retreating and developing behavioral problems, acting out and internalizing the pain and suffering. In the same way a dog bites a helping hand, I lashed out at the world, taking my pain out on foster families that loved me despite the behavior.

Not knowing how to control this, DHS placed me in a residential program to desensitize me from reacting to stimuli; I was now in “the system.”

Lilah, who is a Lab mix, is my current dog. She arrived in a state of panic. When Marie brought her in, she shook profusely; for two entire days she would not eat or drink. Anytime she was brought into living areas, she would shake and shut down. Lilah was inconsolable, any sudden movement or noise triggered fear.

The first day, I lay with her, perfectly still beside her on the floor. Her eyes tracked every move and she was ready to react to any little thing. It was uncanny how she mimicked behavior; as we lay on the floor, the more relaxed I was, the more she would gradually follow that lead.

I placed a blanket on the floor and made a fort for her, watching her peek out to watch me. By the end of that day, she allowed me to pet her. I sat on the floor most of the evening, gently stroking her neck.

Touch is amazing; as I held her in my arms, love channeling with each stroke, her muscles relaxed.

After entering “the system” at 8, I was constantly transferred from one residential placement to another, remaining in treatment facilities for the next 10 years, escaping when I turned 18.

During those years, longing to be part of a family and desperately dreaming of a forever home, the unconditional love sought was instead found in the form of four-point restraints and copious amounts of Thorazine and Ativan.

Caseworkers, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists were my only family. Staff used their power to take their discontentment in life out on us, jerking us around on invisible leashes, giving us cruel orders and punishing for superficial transgressions. My fear and mistrust of people grew stronger with each jerk of the leash.

Unquestioned obedience was expected. All I wanted was the opportunity to explore the world; instead, my owners tethered me to an early prison of fear and pain.

Dog trainers and animal behaviorists often say that dogs learn bad habits inadvertently from owners who aren’t aware of what they are doing. Humans do not differ in this regard. Growing up in the system taught me maladapted coping skills.

Humans learn, just like dogs, how to adjust normally to abnormal situations by inadvertently internalizing our environment for the sake of survival. The environmental conditions, more times than not in the system, are self-defeating and destructive. The sad reality is those people, brought in to help, instead taught me bad habits that kept me in constant trouble.

Like a dog that learns to guard its food and toys, and also that being cute will get you snacks, I learned to manipulate people’s emotions ― making them feel bad for me. I learned to lie and hide my feelings, bullshitting people into thinking I didn’t care. I wanted their attention and love more than anything; I wanted to matter as a human being.

Each time I barked, it was really an invitation for someone to get closer. Every time I ran away, I was testing to see if anyone cared enough to chase me.

The greatest gift

When I train dogs, they teach me, and I learn more about myself. The greatest lesson so far: seeing my capacity to care for something outside of myself.

Dogs are therapeutic in the prison setting because we are almost completely deprived of loving touches. Of all the things I miss, it is a loving hug, a passionate kiss ― human touch that, when deprived, tends to make us cold and indifferent quickly, as survival and self-preservation become instinctual. This is not a matter of choice.

Nevertheless, when I am with a dog that always greets me with an energetic wagging tail and a million licks to the face, it is a remembrance that I am human, every time. Having the opportunity to lie on a bed with a dog is a rewarding and a cathartic substitute to the human alternative. Having a dog in prison awakens forgotten emotions and helps us become more empathetic and understanding toward others’ needs.

When dogs enter the world, they quickly learn what is socially acceptable in Doggie World. Mothers check unruly pups, while siblings will keep each other towing the line. Much as humans do, dogs learn about the world through experience and exposure.

Dogs need other dogs to properly socialize and to be confidently independent. But sometimes that does not happen. A storm can displace a litter of puppies, turning them into strays. Other times, they leave the litter too soon when a family buys them before they are ready. The most dreaded is the abused or neglected puppy or dog.

In all three of these cases, dire consequences result. If not properly socialized by their mother and siblings, or the humans around them, dogs can develop a fear of other dogs and people. The can become insecure and co-dependent on one of their siblings for security. Worse, a neglected and antisocial dog may develop aggression, lashing out. Unfortunately, the media is full of stories of what happens to these dogs.

Human beings do not differ much in some regards. If neglected and not properly socialized at an early age, humans risk developing problematic behaviors.

Considering that we learn love from the family that cares for us, if care is absent at an early age, so is our understanding of love; it becomes distorted by traumatic experiences, creating a warped conception of what love is in our minds.

If our primary caregivers do not provide desperately needed nurturing, like a dog left chained in the back yard, we find ways to get our needs met. The problem is that we meet those needs with destructive behaviors, making a disparaging situation worse.

I am serving a 30-year sentence and am 12 years in. Despite that depressing reality, looking into a dog’s eyes, the reflection I see is hope. Hope that self-transformation and change are possible.

The reward of watching a dog undergo transformation in our program is incomparable. A once fearful dog, who refused to come out from underneath a table, starting to trust people, approaching them with wagging tail, testifies to the power of love and compassion. What a blessing to observe what love can do, especially to a damaged and innocent soul!

The same is true of human beings. When time and effort is invested in those people who might simply be misunderstood, the outcomes can be amazing. Many people in prison have untapped and unrealized potential.

Few, if any, have taken time to teach them the worth of their humanity. Few, if any, have taken the time to try and understand their pain and suffering. As with Lilah, lying with her awhile allowed her fragile and malnourished soul to feel a loving presence.

To be able to give a dog another chance at life is a profound experience. Dogs teach that change is possible. Despite the damage that occurred at an early age, the ability to heal is just a loving stroke away.

During dog training, one learns to sit and appreciate a silent moment with a companion. Love is the greatest gift we can give each other; it is the medicine that produces the best results.

All my dogs have been teachers, reminding me to put more understanding, compassion, and patience into daily life.

So, I ask again, what do you see when you look into a dog’s eyes?


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Reade Brower can be reached at: reade@freepressonline.com

Disclosure: Reade Brower is owner of these newspapers. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own, and do not represent the newspapers, or their editorial board.