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I work with convicts. My dog helps break the ice — and melt the hardest of hearts

This is a First Person column by Sonja Arsenault, who lives in B.C. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The initial meeting with a new parolee is always an uneasy dance between small talk and setting expectations. As I led the newest member of my caseload as a parole officer down the office hallway, he stopped in his tracks when he saw my dog, Griffin. 

Griffin was sporting a button-down shirt and waiting for us on my swivelling office chair. 

“The office has a dress code,” I quipped in response to the parolee’s questioning stare. 

The tension in the air immediately eased. 

Within minutes, Griffin was sitting up alert on the newly freed man’s lap, his fingers entwined between Griffin’s ears. 

“I haven’t touched a dog’s fur in 19 years,” he said. 

The rest of the intake was easy — all thanks to Griffin. 

He came into my life 11 years ago. 

A small dog reclines among blankets and stuffed toys on a sofa.
Griffin was adopted by Arsenault and her family 11 years ago. (Sonja Arsenault)

I grew up in Vancouver with German shepherds that lived outside in a dog house and only came inside periodically to lie on a blanket near the entrance on cold, wet days.  

Don’t get me wrong, I loved these dogs, but they were simply that: dogs. 

As a single 20-something, I bought a cat at a garage sale and named her Pepsi. 

She was a special animal with lots of personality. When we had to put Pepsi down at the age of 15, our intuitive six-year-old whispered loving words into the sick cat’s ear while our more rambunctious three-year-old broke the news loudly to Pepsi. 

“You’re going to die and we’re going to get a dog.” 

It was a false hope, I was sure, as I never planned on getting a dog. You see, I like things clean and dogs are messy. And I don’t like barking or chewed bannisters.  

Then a few years later, a Kijiji ad popped up on my phone with a nearly three-kilogram Morkie puppy looking for a home. 

“Let’s just go look,” I carelessly said to my husband. One look at the floppy-haired pup, which was trying to get away from the cigarette haze in the backyard breeder’s filthy kitchen, and we knew Griffin was coming home with us.

Not liking being left at home alone for any length of time, Griffin lived to work. 

If memory serves, he first came to my work 10 years ago as a one-off stop following a vet appointment. But it quickly progressed to Griffin becoming the OG office dog, long before drool and scattered toys were commonplace.

Despite the dark side of life that he witnessed daily at my workplace (the Correctional Service of Canada), Griffin could always find the remaining beam of sunlight in any room to bask in. Every workday morning, my kids would lay out two stylish outfits and allow Griffin to pick his favourite. We helped him don his tiny Lululemon backpack full of snacks and he waited by the garage for his ride to his office. 

He knows how to use an elevator and loves rides to Tim Hortons on the way, although he always snubs the stale, day-old Timbit the baristas mistakenly try to provide. 

A small grey-haired dog wearing a blue shirt with the word “police” is in an office. His hind legs are on an office chair and his front paws are on a keyboard tray.
Griffin likes to sit on Arsenault’s office chair and show he’s part of the law and order team. (Sonja Arsenault)

As a parole officer, it’s my responsibility to assist with the rehabilitation of offenders while also enforcing the rules to keep our communities safe. To do this well, I have to dig deep into the lives, thoughts and crimes of individuals who are disconnected from society while ensuring I give little of myself in return.  

I don’t wear my wedding ring at work. There are no photos of my family in cute little frames on my desk. To hide from the shadows, parole officers must keep a part of ourselves in the dark. Therefore, I am a blank slate. It helps keep me safe.    

But Griffin became my connector. I believe his readily apparent love and trust in me makes me appear immediately safer and more trustworthy to those I serve. The offenders I work with now have a small window into my life and love outside of work. 

Griffin at times plays the good-cop, bad-cop routine with me, putting humour into a challenging conversation when I say a well-placed, “Try that again, even my dog doesn’t believe your story.” It works more often than not.  

The prevalent rumour at the halfway house is that Griffin is a trained drug-sniffing dog. I put little effort into dispelling this long-standing myth. 

At work, Griffin offers no judgment to those who have strayed from the right side of the law or those inclined to dance with fate. He cuddles peacefully with his heavily tattooed admirers during their weekly check-ins and never questions their past. 

For those who have suffered exile and loneliness in prison, I’m sure he is the closest thing to a human touch many have experienced in a long time. I’m told by some of the parolees that Griffin reminds them of their own long-lost childhood pets, back when they used to love things. His small stature encourages them to move more cautiously and gently in the world again. 

A grey-haired dog sleeps on a grey knitted blanket.
Griffin lies on his favourite work blanket, which was knitted by one of the offenders who Arsenault worked with. (Sonja Arsenault)

Griffin sleeps most of the day on a knitted blanket a lifer crafted just for him. This blanket rests on a couch from where Griffin holds court, allowing co-workers to stroke his fur while sharing a story or offering them comfort during a stressful period. 

I can hand Griffin to an offender during an intense meeting with the offenders case management team and they would inevitably encourage the room to “lower your voice.” Everyone know that anger disrupts Griffin’s much-needed sleep.  

I believe Griffin loves the prevalent personalities, secrets and stories of redemption that perpetually swirl in a correctional environment as we attempt to find a balance between law and disorder. Griffin is a quiet observer to it, all the while curled up in a ball on my lap.  

A few months after his 11th birthday, the vet diagnosed Griffin with progressive heart failure and gave him just a few months to live. It seems fitting that our most beloved dog’s kryptonite would end up being that his heart was just simply too big for his body. But we all already knew that.  

My partner in crime is now down to one day a week at work. He needs help getting onto his couch with his beloved blanket. Instead of treats, his backpack is filled with medications to keep the blood pumping through his tiny body. 

My kids are in college now so he sleeps on their beds while they study instead of bouncing down the sidewalk and careening into the lobby of my downtown office building. 

A small dog in a blue and purple pyjama suit stands on a blue blanket.
Griffin is the only first-hand witness to Arsenault’s personal and professional life. (Sonja Arsenault)

My tiny co-conspirator may lack a forceful bark and bite that could keep evil at bay. But even as his life force fades, the spell Griffin has cast by aiding and abetting me to change the lives around us has, in his mild-mannered way, contributed to the safeguarding of our society. He has reached his warrant expiry date, and it is now his time to move on without me. 

For now, at the end of his shortened work week, Griffin still slips into his coziest pyjamas and curls up next to me in our bed to enjoy some reality TV whilst we unwind our minds from the trauma and unrest. 

He is the only first-hand witness to both my life and my work. He sees me. He has been there, too. The traumas and the successes. The failures and the triumphs. And sometimes, that is just enough to help us all get through the day and our lives unscathed. 

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