I brought Rescue to Providence for the Rhode Island Pet Expo last Sunday. It was a good opportunity to expose him to other animals, and the downtown location provided plenty of additional training opportunities: heavy traffic, skateboarders, people behaving oddly (we checked that one off the list with a walk through the bus station).
This American Life was on the car radio on the ride down. The show's theme was "coincidences," and because I appreciate foreshadowing, I was pretty sure that meant I'd experience a coincidence of my own that day. I wasn't disappointed.
The Pet Expo was held at the Rhode Island Convention Center in a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall packed with people and animals and booths that spilled over with pet treats and toys. It was almost too much for Rescue to process. If he were a cartoon, exclamation points would have been popping out of his head.
We made the rounds of the booths before settling in to watch an agility demo. Rescue was exhausted from the effort of holding himself together and dropped to the floor with his legs splayed behind him like an otter. When a woman in a wheelchair appeared beside us, I asked Rescue to squeeze in closer to make room for her. The woman looked down at him and told me in a soft voice that she misses her dog, who she had to put down two years ago. I confided that saying goodbye to my dog was what started me on the prison puppy track.
Her daughter joined the conversation, asking whether Rescue was trained at the ACI (Adult Correctional Institute). On the desk of the nonprofit where she works, she told me, are 30 hand-drawn birthday cards that an inmate from the ACI sent to her to distribute to the homeless children she works with. How the inmate learned about her charity is a mystery since it's relatively new and hasn't received much publicity.
The cards, she said, are beautiful, intricately drawn, each one unique. It was obvious that the inmate took great care creating them. Along with the cards, he sent a newspaper article about the puppy program. The woman said she doesn't know why he included the article, but assumed it was as supporting evidence of his good intentions -- a way to reassure her that there was no ulterior motive to his gift, that, whether through art or training future service dogs, he tries to make life easier for others.
This sounded familiar. Rescue's inmate, Steve, is an artist. Before he trained NEADS puppies, he drew them and donated the portraits (anonymously) to the clients.
I asked the woman if she remembered the inmate's name. She did not, but said she'd recognize it if she heard it. I gave her Steve's name, first and last. Her response was immediate. "That's him!"
So, what are the odds that on the last hour of the last day of an expo that attracted thousands of people, the woman puzzling over an unexpected but heartfelt gift from a prison inmate would stand next to me, the person co-raising that inmate's dog?
The narrator of the This American Life episode said that a good coincidence is like a good magic trick. When you see one, a struggle ensues between the thrill of the apparent miracle and the urge to debunk it. Which might explain why on the ride home I searched for a rational explanation to the chance meeting. Maybe Steve has sent gifts of artwork to every nonprofit in the state of Rhode Island. Maybe he randomly selects names from the Providence phone book and sends off packages of hand-drawn cards every day. Then I realized that even if every third person in Providence has an original by Rescue's trainer sitting on their desk or hanging on their wall, there's no way I would know about it. The magic wasn't conjured by an unseen hand, but by the dog snoozing at my side. Without Rescue, there would have been no conversation. The woman and I wold have stood side by side, but apart, watching the agility demo, unaware of our connection. Because it's only when you connect with strangers that miracles reveal themselves.
Which is all the evidence I need to prove that dogs are magic.