Our Blog

May 19, 2015

Being on Both Sides of the Leash

by Sean, former ICAN Handler

Sean and his best friend, Cubby

As the Director of Training for ICAN, it has been an interesting, challenging, and unexpected road to this destination. ICAN has a two-pronged mission statement: to train and place assistance dogs with children and adults with disabilities, while providing life and job skills to inmates who train the dogs for service work inside Indiana correctional facilities. I have experienced all aspects of this mission statement.

In 2004 I was an offender at Branchville Correctional Facility due to my bad choices and poor decisions. I had never trained a dog before, although I had dogs as pets throughout my childhood. When I got to Branchville and as I was accepted into the ICAN program there, I was experiencing a lot of emotions and dealing with some personality traits that needed improving. I had low self-esteem, no motivation due to the feeling of losing my family previous to being incarcerated and during the incarceration, and did not see how I could climb out of the hole that I found myself in and put myself in.

My first year in ICAN, I did nothing to change. I was not sociable and was much more comfortable by myself with a book. I did not know how to talk to people (and had several "issues" in the prison due to this), I lacked self-confidence, and I was just surviving…instead of living.

Dr. Sally Irvin, however, dared to name me Senior Handler despite my objections. It challenged all my ''íssues''. I had to learn to lead, teach, work in a group, and exhibit proper interpersonal communications skills. She advised me that staying in my ''comfort zone'' leaves me in the same place I have always been and the only way to become a better person and move forward was to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. Today…I KNOW that is true.

I learned many things about myself during my last few years in Branchville and as Senior Handler. I learned I was a good teacher, I learned to be able to talk to and respond to people appropriately,  I learned what I could control and how much I couldn't. I learned I could teach dogs and, most of all, I learned that I could succeed.

Sean speaking at ICAN's "Wine and Wags"

Upon my release, and with virtually no family, it was a struggle…and many times the thought of giving up crossed my mind. However, falling back on some things I learned and some things I found out about myself while at Branchville, I asked for help when needed and I took the time to find out options available to me when I was going through the tough times. With nowhere to go, my parole officer offered the option of going to The Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center in Gary. I completed the program, went back to school and completed my Bachelors of Social Work degree. I became Asst. Resident Manager, then Intake Coordinator, and ultimately Director of Rehabilitation Services for the same program I went through at The Salvation Army.

I  went to Indianapolis to attend fundraisers and events for ICAN. Sally sent a yellow Lab up north with me for a few months for some behavior modification, and then asked if I would like a facility dog for the rehab center. She said it was a Golden (my favorite dog, she remembered), named Cubby (what a coincidence being a diehard Cubs fan…and able to actually admit that!), and I jumped at the opportunity.

After a couple years, I made the tough decision (loving Chicago like I do) to move to Indianapolis and get more involved with ICAN. I volunteered and went to the correctional facilities with the director of training, and began working at the Humane Society of Indianapolis. I was then offered the position of Director of Training at ICAN. I had come full circle. I continue to work, when time and energy allow, at The Humane Society in the Behavior Department, but I have come full circle. I have been involved in almost all aspects of ICAN: offender/handler, volunteer, client, and for nearly two years now as Director of Training.

As Director of Training, I provide my knowledge of training and behavior, and I am an example of both sides of the mission statement. I work with the handler's directly and they know I have been where they are. They see there is success after incarceration and that the bad choices of the past do not have to define our future…unless we again choose to allow them to.

Sean speaking before the handlers and guests at a Graduation Ceremony