Back before I went to prison, I had a dog. Her name was Charlotte. She was a black lab/greyhound mix, with white around her nose. Getting her was one of the few things I do not regret from my years of drug use.
I brought her home in 2007, just a few days after I'd jumped off a bridge in Ithaca, New York, in a very earnest suicide attempt. It was a 98-foot fall, police later told me. But I hit a mossy flat rock and slid, fracturing a number of vertebrae and ending up in the ICU.
Afterward, the person I was dating made probably the only good suggestion they ever made the entire time we knew each other and pushed me to get a dog, hoping that with an animal to care for I wouldn’t try to kill myself again.
I resisted. I understood the logic, but it still seemed like a bad idea. I was a broke drug addict, and a dog was both an expense and a responsibility. But I was lonely, and clearly in a bad place. I needed something. A cat seemed more doable, I thought.
And so, just four or five days out of the hospital and still wearing back and neck braces, I found myself standing in line at a Walmart checkout, when I noticed the woman next to me had a box of kitty litter.
I asked if she happened to have an extra cat.
She did not. But, she said, her friend had a dog that was about to go to the pound if they couldn’t find a new home by the end of the weekend.
When I picked Charlotte up two days later, she was in rough shape—just like me. She wasn’t quite 2, and her previous owners had found her a little over a year earlier, abandoned in a farmer’s field, making herself a bed in corn. They’d taken her in, but they already had four other dogs who bullied her and stole her food.
By the time I got Charlotte—after the couple who owned her split up—her ribs stuck out and she jumped at everything. As soon as I brought her in the house, she saw my housemate's cat and immediately peed all over the floor in abject terror.
She got healthier, but it took me quite a few years to follow suit. She spent a lot of time trying to steal people’s weed and walking to crackhouses with me. She was there through the worst of my addiction and saw it all—raids, robberies, tears, drunken fights. At times, just knowing that she depended on me kept me from making even more destructive decisions than I already did.
But then I got arrested in late 2010, picked up while walking down the street with a large stash of drugs. In a rare occurrence, Charlotte wasn’t with me; she was in my apartment. And I had no idea what would happen to her. I’d heard that the cops searched my place—which made sense, since I’d just been arrested with six ounces of heroin. But no one could tell me what happened to my dog.
Eventually, a friend on the outside checked for me. After the police search, he said, it appeared that someone had broken in and ransacked the apartment. This kind of thing happens: When people read in the news that someone got arrested and is in jail, they break in and steal stuff because they know no one’s home. Most of my belongings were taken. They even took my dirty underwear. And worst of all, my dog was missing—just vanished. She wasn’t at my place or at any of the animal shelters.
Charlotte had been a huge support for me through some rough times, and I had no idea what happened to her. And whatever it was, I knew it was my fault.
A week or two after my arrest, I found out where she was. Just before the thieves broke in, the apartment property manager had given her to a family. They were complete strangers, with two daughters and a nice home in an upscale neighborhood called Cayuga Heights. And they were a little apprehensive about taking in a drug dealer’s dog.
But they were animal-lovers, and they had a dog of their own—Bailey. Another black lab mix, she looked like she could have been Charlotte’s twin.
Bailey and Charlotte became besties, and my dog started a happy dog life without me. Doing my time day by day, I only heard about it second-hand.
Initially, the family had intended to keep her for a few days until long-term arrangements could be made. But then they fell in love with her and decided they’d keep her until I got out. At that point, we didn’t know how long that would be.
In the meantime, I missed having a life filled with fur. I felt like I’d abandoned her, and it seemed like one of the most tangible immediate harms I’d done in my addiction—though of course it was really only one of many.
I did just under two years, and the day I got out—six years ago this fall—the first place I went was to see Charlotte.
She had no idea who I was.
Over the next few weeks, I came to the family’s house to visit her, watching her play all the new games she’d learned to play with Bailey. The family and I took her on walks, showing me all her new favorite spots. And I hoped eventually she’d remember me and stop treating me like a stranger.
It felt like it took forever, but it I could see in her eyes the moment she figured it out. I took her on a walk past the place we lived when I got arrested, and it clicked. She stopped trying to pull away from me. She responded when I called her.
Finally. Fresh out of prison, I felt like I had so little to offer in life. But I had my dog, and it seemed like the first thing I’d done right in a long time.
Then, amazingly, this family kept their word. After two years of giving my dog a great home, they gave her back for good.
Over time, they became like second parents to me. They made a place in their lives for me, and it all started because of my dog.
They came to my graduation, showed up with groceries at random, dropped off homemade meals. They introduced me to people, invited me to movie nights, helped me plan community dinners. They were complete strangers, putting faith in a felon.
So last month when I went to visit Ithaca, I stayed with them. I walked in, and their dog Bailey greeted me—then waited at the door for the dog she thought would be coming in behind me.
Charlotte died just over two years ago. She’d been there when I got back into college, borked at my parole officer and seen me successfully finish parole. She’d moved with me when I got hired as a reporter at the New York Daily News, and again when I went to work at the Houston Chronicle. She’d seen the worst moments of my life—and she had been there as I picked up the pieces. She died two months after we moved to Texas, at age 11.
The things that help with successful reentry can be so random. There’s privilege and opportunity—and there’s also dumb luck. It was such chance that, through my dog, I was able to meet people who would believe in me and help me get my life together at a time when most people would not.
And, yeah, my dog helped me get my life together, too. Miss her every day. Heckin’ good dog. 13/10 would hire as reentry counselor.
Keri Blakinger, 34, is a criminal justice reporter for the Houston Chronicle. She has not gotten another dog. This time around, she went for a cat.