Freedom, a 9-week-old border collie, is struggling to roll over, despite the promise of treats from her trainer, Calvin Bullers. She’s mastered the flopping on the ground part, but try as she might, her little pink belly can’t make it all the way around.
“This is still new,” Bullers said ruefully. “We’ve been working all day on it.”
Someday, Bullers hopes, Freedom will visit schools, senior centers and hospitals as a licensed therapy dog.
But she’s not there yet. Although the tiny puppy can already sit, lie down and shake hands on command, it will be months before she sheds her youthful playfulness and is ready to pass the Canine Good Citizen test — the gold standard for dog behavior, according to the American Kennel Club, and a requisite for all aspiring therapy dogs.
In the meantime, Bullers has listed Freedom in the National Service Animal Registry and takes her to his 12-step fellowship meetings, just for practice. He’s also gotten permission to bring her to classes at Frederick Community College, where he’s working on his associate degree in human services.
“There’s just something about a dog that breaks down barriers,” Bullers said. “You can just watch the way people light up when they see her — it totally brings down their stress level.”
The same is true in Freedom’s new home, a sober living house run through the Up & Out Foundation of Frederick County. A well-maintained suburban home off Opossumtown Pike, the facility has been a dream of the nonprofit’s founder, Korey Shorb, almost since the start of his own recovery nine years ago.
The house opened at the start of July, Shorb said, but he never considered bringing in a dog until Bullers — who began training service dogs while serving time in prison — suggested the idea. Shorb wasn’t sure, initially, but visiting area shelters with Bullers eventually convinced him.
“I thought on it, prayed on it, and I watched how he acted when we went to go look at different dogs,” Shorb said. “That’s what kind of sold me.”
For Bullers, training Freedom is also therapy — a distraction and a relief from the full-time job of recovery. Now 37, he started using prescription painkillers when he was 16 and found heroin when he was 19, a discovery that later led to assault and armed robbery charges and a nearly nine-year stint at Eastern Correctional Institution.
Training dogs gives Bullers, now three months sober, a sense of accomplishment and something to care for besides himself, he said. At ECI, he learned to train service dogs for veterans — an intensive task, given the dozens of commands that service animals eventually master. Training Freedom is a bit easier and more about socialization than rigorous instruction, he added, which also makes it more fun.
“People get to pet her and play with her and love her, so it’s kind of the exact opposite of training a service animal,” Bullers said. “It’s just one of the things that lights me up inside and gives me a sense of purpose.”
Seven men are living at the sober house, which can fit nine at full capacity, Shorb said. Freedom has been there for only a week, but she’s already a source of delight and sometimes inspiration for Bullers’ housemates.
“It’s almost like a baby,” said Dylan Riley, 25, who has lived at the house for about a month. “It’s just a joy in the morning to have her running around, and she’s something to care for — she just fits right in.”
Having a dog also brings a sense of normalcy to men whose lives, for months or years, were defined by chaos. Shorb said he’s strived to make the house a peaceful, stable environment, with clear-cut rules and a back porch that overlooks a thick grove of pine trees. But a puppy underfoot cements the hominess of the environment, said Michael Brown, 36.
“It’s that feeling of when you’re a kid — it just brings a smile to your face,” he added. “For a houseful of guys to have a little puppy around — it just helps.”
Though Bullers and Shorb also considered shelter dogs at the start of their search, the two settled on Freedom after they saw an ad for a breeder off Coppermine Road in Libertytown. Freedom was the smallest in the litter, Bullers said, but her sweetness and super-happy demeanor convinced them she was the one.
Watching the puppy tussle on the floor with a well-chewed bone, Shorb also checks his phone and notices a message from a man who attended his recovery group and met Freedom the night before. The man’s son had died of natural causes a few weeks ago, Shorb said, and he’d been having a hard time since.
“‘Met her tonight. Cute pup. Made me feel better. I needed it,’” Shorb read. “So, she’s already kind of doing her job. Really, at the heart of it, dogs are a man’s best friend. They’re good companions. The whole concept — it’s awesome.”