I just finished watching Season One of Netflix’s original series, Orange is the New Black and I have to say, I’m really worried. Yes, the storylines pulled me in and I’m wrapped up in the lives of the characters and all that, but it’s Little Boo that I’m staying up nights thinking about.
Little Boo, though it’s never fully explained on the show, is a dog being trained to be a service animal by one of the inmates. We don’t meet Little Boo until about one-third of the way into Episode Seven, when the inmate, Big Boo prances onto the block trailing a yellow Lab in a training cape and gleefully shouts, “Okay bitches! Who’s first in line for some PUPPY LOVIN’?”
I sat up on the couch and watched in horror as a squealing inmate and prison guard threw themselves onto the dog, smushing her face between their hands and riling her up. “Whoa, Big Boo!” I yelled to the television. “You have to give the dog permission to say hello first!”
Five years and four dogs ago, I started taking puppies out of a prison to socialize them on weekends. My first big surprise as a weekend puppy raiser was that the guy doing time in a medium security prison was far more disciplined with the puppy than I was. I saw it every Friday when he required Daisy to sit patiently and make eye contact before letting her race over to me; and every Sunday when I handed back the leash and watched him gently guide Daisy to the correct position at his side while I updated him on our weekend. And I saw it in the progress Daisy made from being an adorable, but instinct-driven puppy to a fully trained service dog.
In the NEADS program where I volunteer, there are a dozen inmates training dogs in the prison, each equally committed to his job. They receive their puppies at about twelve weeks old and, for an entire year, the dogs are by their side, learning to wait for each command, to stay calm and in control of their impulses. Oh sure, the puppies get to play, but only after the “free time” command because eventually, a disabled person’s safety and well being will depend on their dog’s ability to stay focused while working. I’m pretty sure that if any of the inmate trainers fed their canine student an ear of corn from their dinner plate as Big Boo did in Episode Nine, they’d lose their dog and be back to pressing license plates. But that wouldn’t happen because the inmates lucky enough to be accepted into the program know it’s a privilege to be a dog trainer in prison, to have the opportunity -- most for the first time in their lives – to be responsible for another being.
The hardest part of raising a service dog is letting him go. One inmate told me he cried every day for a month after saying goodbye to the first dog he trained. But now he thinks of Rugby and all of the rest of his dogs as being away at college, and that helps. The greatest reward for the inmates, though, is when the NEADS client visits the prison to meet the person who trained their dog. That’s when the raw pain of loss reshapes itself and bubbles up into feelings that are entirely new for most of them: pride and joy.
So, OITNB writers, please give Big Boo some dog-training skills in Season Two. If you keep letting Little Boo jump on the bunk (Episode Twelve) and who knows what else is happening off camera, both she and her handler will be nothing more than a couple of prison flunkies. We viewers want to see Big Boo succeed, to watch her pour herself into her dog, then send Little Boo, along with the best of herself, into the world to do good.