by Mary Helen Berg
An interview with author Sharron Kahn Luttrell, Weekends with Daisy
When her beloved German shepherd Tucker died at age 15, journalist Sharron Kahn Luttrell didn’t think she would ever let another dog into her heart. She found the loss of her dear canine friend devastating on its own, but it also marked the melancholy passage of time, and coincided with the fact that her children were grown and soon would leave her as well.
One day searching for condiments in the grocery aisle, Luttrell spotted a yellow Labrador wearing a bright blue cape that read: “Puppy In Training.” The dog’s volunteer handler told Luttrell about a non-profit organization that pairs puppies with “co-parents”: a prison inmate during the week and a community volunteer on weekends. The “co-parents” then coordinate to train the pups as service dogs for the deaf and disabled. Luttrell saw a way to bring a dog back into her life without giving her heart away, and signed up as a volunteer. Daisy, a yellow Labrador, was her first pup in training.
The National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) program matches puppies with inmates in 10 New England prisons. Volunteers like Luttrell try to expose the dogs to home life and experiences they wouldn’t have on prison grounds, such as trips to coffee shops, train stations and movie theaters. Luttrell’s yearlong journey with Daisy and Keith, her inmate co-parent, became Weekends With Daisy, her first book.
Kirkus Reviews called Weekends with Daisy: “A deceptively simple but powerful account of family bonds, friendship and the special relationship we share with dogs.
Luttrell’s fingers are crossed for Weekends with Daisy to hit the big screen. The book has been optioned by CBS Films for development as a feature film.
Can you talk at all about what makes a Lab fit the profile for NEADS?
Yes. Labs are smart. They’re often confident. They’re really eager to please. They’re food-motivated. They’re a good size.
Having been a longtime German shepherd owner and lover, was it difficult for you to get used to a Lab persona?
It was funny, I always thought that Labs were kind of boring. That’s not going to win me any fans, right? They all looked alike to me and with German Shepherds, there’s more variety, and I thought they’re ears make them easier to read because they point and they flatten. And so I was like well, Labs are kind of cute but they’re no German shepherd. But when I got Daisy, I instantly fell in love with her and with the whole breed because they’re just, they’re what you need as a human being, I think. Everyone should have a Lab in their lives. I think they understand you. This is me projecting, right? But I felt like she understood me, and she wanted to be with me and she wanted to please me, and she was always up for fun, and always up for training…. Now when I see a Lab I feel like the Lab is one of my dogs. I feel this connection which I never felt before. I needed to get to know one personally before I understood how remarkable they are.
I read that you had such a soft spot for Daisy that you wanted her to fail the training program, and I wondered if you would talk about that and what happened to change that.
Pretty soon on maybe the third or fourth weekend, it kept getting stronger and stronger that I felt that she was my dog, that she was part of my family that she was mine… And then people would say “Oh, do you get to keep her if she flunks out?” and I’d start thinking “Yeah, Maybe!” I would just fantasize about her flunking out… I told myself that if she did flunk out I’d get her certified as a therapy dog…
But I was bringing her back to prison, and it was a Sunday. and it was a bleak winter day and Keith looked really down. She had tested positive again for parasites and he said that he was afraid she was going to flunk out and when he said that his whole demeanor was like, crushed. He was just deflated at the thought of her not making it through the program…And I saw him and what would happen to him if his dog didn’t make it. I realized that this is way bigger than what I thought…
He had such pride in his “girl,” which is how he referred to her. Then I realized that this isn’t just a dog, this is his chance at doing something good. This is his pride, this is his joy and I didn’t know what he had done at this point or why he was in prison. But I knew that it would be his failure if she failed and that I needed to take my role more seriously.
And she did graduate and found a placement with David, a boy who has autism. Is she still with him?
She is still with him. They’re maybe an hour away so I actually got to dog-sit her over the summer. It was great. I felt like the puzzle place had been clicked back in. It was like having my child home.
What about the impact Daisy had on you personally and on your family?
It was really huge. And I didn’t even really understand how huge it was until it was all over. It was so hard for me that whole year. I grew so attached to her and then had to give her up, and spent so much time preparing her, that I realized at a certain time that what I was doing with her was a collapsed version of what I was doing with my kids. I was dreading having them grow up and have all of that be over.
So Daisy was sort of your transition; she helped you transition to another phase?
It helped me transition to another phase and get me used to the idea that what I’d been doing all along, and what I needed to be doing, was preparing my kids to be fully functioning adults and not need me anymore. And that’s what I was doing with Daisy was preparing her to be a service dog and leave me.
You’ve been a devoted German shepherd lover and now you’ve become a Lab lover. I’m not going to make you pick, but would you consider owning again, and if you did would you consider a Lab?
Yeah, I’m so open now. I’m not looking to have another dog in my life permanently– as much as anything is permanent–but a Lab, absolutely! I would love so much to just be laying on the floor with a Lab right now.
What advice would you give for a dog lover who might want to participate in a service training program?
For weekend puppy raisers, the best advice I can give is what took me a long time to learn, which is to be attuned to the dog at all times and be attuned to yourself. Rather than just going about your life and having the puppy at the end of the leash or somewhere in the house, you really need to be focused on what the dog is doing at all times because that way you can redirect if he’s about to do something like eat a cigarette butt or go run after another dog or pounce on a leaf…
You don’t want the dog to reward himself because if he learns to reward himself then he won’t pay attention to his person and he’ll go off and do his own thing. And Labs are so suited to this, they seem so happy to do this, you want the dog to look for the person for everything…. Also pay attention to your own reactions, like it took me a long time to stop startling at loud noises. I had to become calm all the time with the dog so I wouldn’t startle the dog.
Luttrell’s most recent graduate of the NEADS training program, a black Lab named Rescue, is the first dog to be placed with a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing.
He is fabulous in that role. He was made for that role…He was matched in September with a woman who lost her left leg. And the woman’s husband lost his left leg, too. NEADS started a fund to provide service dogs at no cost to Boston Marathon bombing victims. She was the first one to apply… He brings so much joy to this couple. The way she put it is: everything had been loss after loss after loss after the bombing. They lost their future plans; they were going to move to San Francisco where her husband had accepted a fellowship. They had to give that up. They lost their apartment because it was a fourth floor walkup. They lost their legs, obviously. Then, when they were matched with Rescue, she said it was the first time something had been added back to their lives.