How Dogs Changed My Life

How Dogs Changed My Life is an inspiring true story, written by guest blogger, Judy Richardson

Addict. Inmate B47743. Judy Richardson.  I would like to tell you how dogs changed not only my name, but also changed my life. I grew up on a farm in Southern Illinois and have always loved animals. My mother died of cancer when I was only 11 years old, and my father was extremely abusive. My early life was hell, but throughout all of it, animals played a role. Of course, back then, I never recognized that. I got off track at an early age and spent the majority of my life searching. Searching for love, searching for a way to fit in, a place to belong. I searched in all the wrong places and none of them ever had the power to fulfill me. I went through years and years of the downward spiral of addiction and jail. I had a failed marriage and two beautiful daughters that I didn’t know how to love or parent, and I was in and out of their lives. (The focus of this isn’t on that horrible past, but in order to explain the miracle, you have to know how bad it was.) To sum it all up, I spent literally 25 years trapped in a cycle of addiction and incarceration that I didn’t have the power to change. What I want to share with you, is how all that did change, and what God used to do it.

I mentioned that I was in and out of jail, well, I was last incarcerated at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, and it was perhaps one of the darkest times of my life. Let me explain. I had finally started to get my life together and I found help in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was clean and sober for over 7 years when I relapsed and was headed back to prison. I had a 45 days relapse and was arrested (yet again) for delivery of a controlled substance. I was sentenced to 10 years in prison. I was so ashamed and disappointed in myself and couldn’t understand why I had fallen again. How could I fall so far, so fast? As a Christian, I had always heard that God would use all things together for good, but I sure couldn’t see how He could ever do that. When the officer drove me into the prison, I saw offenders walking dogs! Dogs in prison? I was taken to receiving and placed into my cell and my window faced that same unit and street. Every morning as I looked out, those women were out there with those dogs. I knew that was where I wanted to be. Where I needed to be. I was accepted into the Helping Paws Service Dog training program and became a trainer. God began to move in my life and teach me through the dogs I trained. 

"I had an overwhelming awareness that I was being given a fresh start; a new chance at life like I had never known before."

My first dog was Duke and he was a Lab mix that was rescued from a local shelter. I remember that first night with him in my room. I had an overwhelming awareness that I was being given a fresh start; a new chance at life like I had never known before. Training went great and each day I felt as though God were breathing new life into me. I may have been training Duke, but He was training me. One of the first lessons I needed to work on with Duke was “boundaries”. How could I teach him something that I knew nothing about? I had struggled with boundaries my whole life. But I did what I was taught and I was consistent. As I taught Duke, God spoke to me. One day my senior trainer asked me if I ever practiced “free” with Duke. That exercise consisted of taking the leash off and letting them be free around people, other dogs, etc. Duke was still very much a  puppy and loved to play. I was petrified that he would act out and kick off play and run wild and I would be so embarrassed. I was told to unleash him and walk down the long hall. There were people everywhere and lots of open doorways and other dogs sitting with their trainers. I took a deep breathe and let Duke go. As I walked, a miraculous thing happened; Duke walked right beside me. In that moment, God spoke to me with such clarity. He whispered to my soul and said, “You are the one who doesn’t know how to be free. Allow me to show you through Duke.” He showed me that even when Duke was “free”, he chose to walk with me. There were lots of distractions in life, but he knew he was safe next to me and I would take care of everything. As we walked down that long hall, Duke looked up to me. That is the way God wanted me to look to Him. I was safe as long as I was close to God. There were some boundaries and Duke knew he wasn’t allowed to go through some of those doors. In my life, I had gone some places God never intended for me to go. 

That lesson, that day over 2 years ago, has stuck with me. I think of Duke often, but of how God used him even more. He used Aspen, the second dog I trained also. He used the other trainers, many who have life sentences. But He hasn’t stopped teaching me. When I was in the prison, one of the many things I did, was reach out to companies that might be interested in sponsoring the Helping Paws Program or donating to our mission. That is how I came into contact with Coastal Pet Products. I wrote them a long, open, honest, letter much like this and introduced myself and our program to them. I shared our needs with Coastal Pet Products and I remember saying something like ‘our program changes lives on every level’. I went on to explain how it changed the lives of the dogs we rescue, then changed the lives of the trainers, and most importantly, it changes the lives of the recipients. I didn’t even know it myself at the time, but the effects are far more reaching than even that. I received a response to that letter from Kim Stout, President of Coastal Pet Products, Inc! She wrote me, (Addict, Inmate B47743, Judy Richardson), personally, to say they wanted to help us. And then they did. They provided us with leather leads, long lines, treat bags and so so much more. They believed in us and our work, regardless of the names we had been assigned in life. They met our need and that changed us. It offered us hope.

"I am free today, just like Duke taught me to be."

I was released from Logan Correctional Center eleven months ago and God has continued to use  dogs to teach me life lessons. I returned home to the love of my life; a white Standard Poodle named Carson. We also now share our lives with a three year old Golden Doodle named Onyx and two other family dogs named Beau and Elphie. I have worked as a dog groomer since my release and am in the process of following my dream to open my own grooming shop. I also have continued my involvement with Paws Giving Independence who oversees the Helping Paws prison program. Coastal Pet Products has continued to support the program through donations as well. Again, Kim Stout, reached out to me personally and expressed her sincere desire to  support the programs. Those names I started with have changed. I am no longer caught in addiction but am clean and sober and actively working a program of recovery. I am not B47743. I am free today, just like Duke taught me to be. I choose to walk with God and when the distractions of life come (and they do), I look up to Him and trust Him to handle whatever comes our way. 

What I once described as ‘one of the darkest times of my life’ has actually proven to be one of the bright spots. I have found there is no greater blessing in life than to bless others. It’s why this whole thing works...all of it is done for someone else.