WINDHAM — When she looked back on her life, 22-year-old Britni Walters saw mistakes: Joining a gang. Doing drugs. Robbing a Lewiston gas station.
But when she looked at Merry, a 16-week-old Belgian malinois puppy, Walters saw possibilities: Raising Merry to be a police dog. Getting out of prison. Going to school, joining the military and becoming a K9 handler herself.
For the first time, Walters found direction.
"She's taught me so much. She's taught me patience ... obedience. I'm training them at the same time I'm learning," she said.
From December to early March, Walters, an inmate at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, raised and trained puppies as part of a pilot program coordinated by Maine State Police and the Department of Corrections. The goal: save money by having inmates do the early basic training for potential police dogs and help inmates by giving them the responsibility and unconditional love that comes with puppy raising.
"I guess I'm just like them, you know?" Walters said of the puppies. "They're so crazy, they're so wild, but they're so controlled once they're trained to do what they're supposed to. Once they know what they have to do, they do it. And now that I know that I can do what I'm doing, it's so natural to me. Just like them."
Walters was born in Lewiston and raised in Florida, where she lived with family while her biological father was in prison in Maine.
"I grew up good," she said. "I grew up with a good family and stuff."
But Walters got involved in gang activity and faced gun charges. At one point she escaped police custody. She spent two-and-a-half years at a Florida juvenile facility, where she earned her GED diploma.
At 18 she returned to Lewiston and met her father after his release from prison. She wanted to impress him. She wanted him to like her.
"Finally meeting him, I wanted to do what he was doing," Walters said. "And that was heavy drugs."
She lived in crack houses, she said, saw people overdose, prostitute themselves and commit robbery. She saw at least one stabbing.
Walters admits she wasn't an angel herself and drugs made things worse. She was arrested for robbing a gas station.
"I don't really remember doing it," she said. "A lot of things happened the night before."
She was sentenced to eight years in prison, with four years suspended and six years probation. At the Maine Correctional Center, Walters remained angry, hostile. She was still getting in trouble.
Then, about six months ago, Maine State Police announced it would be conducting interviews for inmates interested in training puppies. Walters loved dogs, had them growing up. Suddenly she was interested in something.
"It was a very nerve-wracking interview. I'm sitting in front of these state police officers knowing I'm in front of them because I'm going to do something positive with them, not against them. I'm going to work with them, and now it's time to not run from them," she said.
But Walters' bad attitude would come back to haunt her. She couldn't work with the dogs when she was still getting in trouble. Walters was heartbroken.
"They told me no. And every time somebody told me no, I would just let it go and let that be that," she said. "But I didn't give up."
Walters stopped getting in trouble and started taking classes to better herself. Her attitude improved. Officials noticed.
In December, Walters was invited to join the small team as an assistant. Soon she was promoted to full handler.
Walters and five other women inmates cared for the program's three puppies — two Belgian malinois and one Dutch shepherd — around the clock. With help from professional trainers and state police canine handlers, they taught the dogs to sit, stay and heel, focus their attention on their handler and work for a reward. Walters worked mainly with a puppy named Bach.
When Bach graduated from the program, Walters got Merry. She was 8 weeks old, a lively ball of fluff with big ears and a love of chasing her handler.
"She's very feisty. She's very focused," Walters said.
For weeks Merry slept in Walters' room at night and trained with her during the day. Walters said she took flak from some of the other inmates for working with police officers, but she ignored it.
"I don't mind being the outcast in this place, because I actually feel good about myself. I feel good about what I'm doing," she said.
But the program also unintentionally taught Walters something else — how to deal with disappointment.
In early March, the pilot program was abruptly shut down at the Maine Correctional Center. Officials found the puppies weren't exposed to enough experiences in the facility, so they moved the program to a minimum-security prison in Warren.
Walters and Merry had to say goodbye.
"It definitely was discouraging, because growing up when I got things taken away from me it was because I did something wrong. And accepting that I got this taken away because of other reasons beyond me doing something wrong was a little bit difficult at first," she said.
Of the program's first three puppies, only one was chosen to move on in training — Walters' first puppy, Bach.
"It's clear that (Walters) has a talent," said Gary LaPlante, director of security for the Department of Corrections.
The other two were adopted and will be family pets. Merry was moved to Warren, where she'll continue with training until she's old enough for trainers to judge her personality, abilities and confidence.
Officials hope to restart a program that allows Windham inmates to raise shelter puppies and prepare them for adoptive homes. But that program may not be set up in time for Walters to participate.
Walters has 16 months left on her sentence. She believes she could go to prerelease or home confinement as soon as this summer. She wants to enroll in the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn and, eventually, join the military. She still wants to be a dog handler.
"I won't let it bring me down," she said. "It's just it's going to push me to do better. I think if I were to just give up, that gives up all my goals."
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