Meet the Prisoner With a Gift for Healing Dogs

Sixty dogs changed one man's life as much as he changed theirs.

By Melissa Fay Greene
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

man holding papillion

Melissa Golden for Reader’s Digest

The training director of 4 Paws, Jeremy Dulebohn, 38, arrives with an entourage of assistants, new dogs, and a familiar, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time dog named Lugnut—a golden retriever returning for brush-up work. The inmates quickly find their seats and call over their pups. “Down,” they tell them; some of the dogs obediently flop to the floor, but others skitter off for a few more minutes of playtime. Gradually, the mayhem subsides. The men are anxious to do well and to stay in this program. For some, the relationships they build with these dogs are the most affectionate, gentle, and reciprocal they’ve ever known.

In the past dozen years, hundreds of prison-based animal programs (PAP) have been established throughout the United States. Most involve dogs, but others involve cats, chickens, cows, horses, pigs, and injured wildlife.

Karen Shirk, founding director of 4 Paws, says, “I’ve seen convicted felons cry when it’s time to give us back their dogs. But when they’ve done well, we bring them another.”

When Eddie Hill entered prison in March 1990, his eager-to-please manner toward other inmates served him poorly, not unlike his obedience to Duke. Eddie’s parents visited monthly, so he had cash, snacks, and modest possessions, but he shared them to a fault. If another prisoner asked him for something, he gave it away and was threatened with violence when he had nothing more to give. “The first thing I had to learn was how to say no,” he says.

Once again, Eddie found himself attracted to troublemakers. After guards yanked him out of a fight, he was sentenced to “the hole”—solitary confinement—for 17 days. Moved to a new housing block, he realized he “needed to hang out with people who were trying to better themselves.”

Eventually, Eddie joined the prison’s music association and an in-house branch of the Jaycees. He read books constantly. And he corresponded with a young woman he’d known in high school (in time they would marry). But day-to-day prison life was cold and lonely. In 2002, when a local animal shelter brought in dogs for training, Eddie signed up. He was given custody of Timber, a German shepherd mix who had suffered severe neglect. Timber would be with Eddie day and night, sleeping in his cell.

“Someone had put a collar on Timber and never widened it as he grew from puppyhood—his skin and fur had grown over it and had to be cut away; his neck was a mess,” says Eddie, awed that he’d been entrusted to heal him. “Timber was afraid of everyone and everything. He’d never known kindness.” On their first day together, Eddie led the dog to a quiet place on the grass outside. “I just kept petting him, looking at him, and telling him over and over, ‘It’s all going to be better now, boy. You’re safe now.’

“I attended classes and devoured every book I could find about dogs,” he says, “but a lot of what I did was trial and error mixed with common sense. The first thing that struck me about Timber was that there’s somebody in there. All I had to do was look, and he was right there, with his own feelings, fears, and hopes. I felt that he needed me and wanted to connect.”

Eddie and his cell mate tended to Timber’s wounded neck, cleaning and disinfecting it daily. “He loved it, as it healed, when we would massage lotion into it. He was just in heaven.”

As Eddie moved into empathic attunement with the dog, elements of training fell into place naturally, like respecting the dog’s needs and remaining calm, kind, attentive, and patient. “It doesn’t matter what you’re going through personally—you have to keep your cool,” Eddie says.

The day Timber dared to sniff and be sniffed by other dogs, and then to romp on the grass, was a red-letter day. “It was a joy to see his doggy personality emerge!” Eddie says. “In about 70 days, Timber had become a pretty self-assured, clever fellow who could play and do tricks and who was incredibly attached to me.”

Timber’s rehabilitation, however, meant he was eligible for adoption. The dog was led away, clueless that he was leaving Eddie for the last time.

A few weeks later, in a small miracle of kindness, Timber’s new owner wrote to WCI to thank “Timber’s trainers. Timber is the most wonderful dog! Thank you for showing him how to be a gentleman! … I think the training he received from you has made all the difference in the world.”

Eddie stood in a prison foyer reading the letter, crying openly. He didn’t care who saw him.

Eddie Hill is now 48. He has auburn hair, a chunky nose, and a shy, self-deprecating manner. He deflects praise by shutting his eyes and throwing his head back in demurring laughter. And he’s had lots of praise to deal with: He is the most gifted dog trainer that Shirk and Dulebohn have ever seen. “We’d hire him tomorrow,” Shirk says. “Our policy is not to hire felons, but for Eddie we keep writing to the parole board and the governor. He is something special.”

Eddie has moved on to doing advanced service training, like teaching dogs to turn on lights and open doors. Prison wardens and guards privately consult with him about their own pets. And if a dog proves problematic after placement—like Lugnut, an autism assistance dog who was playing a bit too boisterously—he’s brought back to Eddie for remedial work.

Including Timber and Lugnut, about 60 dogs have been placed with Eddie, from big rangy mutts to papillons, tenderly bred puppies to wild-eyed rescues. Among them: Brutus, a golden retriever trained to assist a physically disabled child; Dante, a papillon who’s a service dog for a boy with pervasive developmental delays; Keeper, a black Labrador placed with a child with bipolar disorder; Kita, a German shepherd trained to detect seizures in a young boy; Embry, a German retriever who helps a child in a wheelchair; Minnie Pearl, a papillon who’s a hearing-ear dog for a college student; and Jiminy, a black Labrador placed with a family in which the mother has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the child is on the autism spectrum.

Eddie has kept a detailed journal of his dogs. “Timber, and every dog since then, has given me back everything I’ve put into them tenfold,” he says. “I wish I’d known about this before I ended up in here. If I ever get out, it’s sure what I want to do, but I’m not up for parole until 2049.”

In 2049, Eddie will be 83.

Melissa Fay Greene’s upcoming book, Wonder Dog, will be about 4 Paws for Ability.

Melissa Golden for Reader’s Digest

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