EAST NOTTINGHAM >> Carrie, a two-year-old yellow lab, couldn’t make it as a service dog because she was too sensitive to new people and situations. But she gained recent fame and public affection after her performance as “Sandy” in the Oxford High School musical’s “Annie,” which drew large crowds this past weekend. There she played her part and took bows at the conclusion to great applause from the audience.
In the musical, Sandy was the stray dog that Annie found and adopted after she first attempted to escape from the orphanage.
But this pup was not always adept at being in the spotlight.
Carrie was born into the Canine Partners for Life program as a potential service dog. The organization, based in Cochranville, has graduated more than 600 assistance dogs over the years. The dogs are trained to help their owners with tasks as amazing as alerting them to imminent seizures, opening and closing doors, shopping for groceries and doing the laundry.
In only eight to 12 short weeks after their births, the pups — including Carrie — are sent off to prisons in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where they are raised for a year by two-person-teams of inmates.
Carrie was placed in a women’s prison upstate for her early training, but, although she was happy and comfortable there with her trainers, she got too nervous with changes in the environment. So she was released from the program and offered for adoption.
Luckily for Carrie, she was adopted by Susan and Jose Reyes of Nottingham, who have three other service dogs.
According to Susan, Jose works with some people who were building props for this year’s musical and asked him if one of his dogs might be able to play Sandy.
“Our other dogs were too high anxiety,” Susan said. So they “decided to give it a shot” with Carrie.
Apparently it was a good fit, because she did fine, and the only thing they had to be careful of was that the kids in the show (other than Natalie Giovan as Annie) didn’t pat her, lest she get distracted from her role.
Carrie had learned other skills during her time at he prison, including sitting, coming, walking with humans and lying down. And she easily adapted to being called “Sandy” in the show.
“Maybe because the end of the name sounds the same — Carrie-Sandy,” Susan Reyes said.
It was also striking how much Carrie seemed to enjoy it.
“When I said it was time to go to play practice, I think she was happy,” Susan Reyes said. “I’m really excited that she did so well.”
Canine Partners for Life Executive Director and Founder Darlene Sullivan said the organization’s dogs learn basic skills at the seven Pennsylvania prisons and three Maryland prisons: socialization in public, how to walk with a leash, how to have their toenails snipped and obedience.
She said the prisoners love having the dogs. “They tell me, ‘We have done harm to society, and this is an opportunity to give back,’” she said.
“They get very attached to the dogs, and we try to keep them informed about how the dogs are doing (after they leave). Sometimes we bring the dogs back to the prisoners for a visit. The tough part is saying good-bye. Sometimes we take a (trained) dog and give them a new little dog,” Sullivan said.
Canine Partners for Life was founded by Sullivan in 1989. It was one of the first organizations to be accredited by Assistance Dogs International. The cost to raise each CPL dog is more than $30,000, according to Sullivan.