Tony Carter can handle the “big dogs.” The all-breed dog handler from Kent, Wash., has had plenty of experience with the likes of Cane Corsos, Beaucerons and Tibetan Mastiffs, but he’s also put in his time at one of the nation’s most notorious state penitentiaries — as a corrections officer! For years Carter worked with both two- and four-legged foragers, raising Chinese Shar-Pei at home while facing hardened criminals on the job. The skills Carter learned from his dog hobby and career came together when he and his wife, Juls, decided to open their hearts and home to foster kids, many of whom would experience the human-canine bond for the very first time.
Carter had been handling dogs “on a small scale” for more than 15 years when the first of more than 30 boys came to stay at the couple’s home. “I was a psychology major at Walla Walla University when I put in for a job at Washington State Penitentiary to become a counselor,” Carter says of his employment within the penal system. “When I worked at the prison and was going to school, I did an internship with Child Protective Services. Because I liked working with young people at my church, I had a conversation with my wife about fostering. One thing led to another, and we ended up getting licensed through Catholic Community Services (CCS).
“In the beginning, the agency was very nervous because of the insurance issues with the foster kids and dogs,” Carter admits. “They were concerned that if the kids came here and the dogs attacked one of the kids, the agency would be liable as well as me. But, I think one of the reasons why they chose to license us was because of my profession.
“Some of the boys had never really even been around dogs, but the dogs were somewhat therapeutic for them,” Carter notes. “For the most part, I wouldn’t leave the kids alone with the dogs — period — but they would go everywhere with me. Sometimes I’d take four boys every weekend to the shows. They would help me get dogs ready and help me get dogs to the ring. It was therapeutic for some of these boys to kind of learn a skill.”
The daily routine of caring for dogs and getting them ready for the show ring proved exactly what some of the boys needed. “One of the first kids we had here was a 16-year-old named Jason [not his real name],” recalls Carter. “Overall he was a sweetheart, 5 feet 10 inches, 220 pounds, but he was over-the-top. He couldn’t sit down; he was a bull in a china shop.”
Jason, however, really loved the dogs. “He always wanted to go out with me and help water the dogs, feed the dogs, walk the dogs and pick up [after] the dogs,” says Carter. “He wanted to be connected with the dogs. He was always hugging the dogs and petting them and brushing them, more so than most of the kids.” Ultimately, he required more intensive treatment than the Carters could offer, but the time he spent with the dogs provided a respite from his troubles. “He lived with us for three months, and we were told that that’s the longest he’d ever lived with any one family,” Carter notes.
Many boys came to stay with the Carters and show dogs for much longer. “Francis [also not his real name] was in foster care since he was 5 years old,” remembers Carter. “He was 14 when we got him and had lived with over 40 foster families. He got to our house and it just ‘clicked.’ He lived with us for three-and-a-half years.”
After providing a safe haven for more than 30 kids in need, the Carters decided to “downsize.” “They [CCS] were really, really good people to work with, but we told them we were going to discontinue the program because we were having a little girl,” says Carter. “We kept the license for three years and we eventually did take on a couple of sisters when my daughter was about a year old. After that we completely quit doing the foster care.”
Although Carter no longer takes in at-risk youth, he knows that the time the kids spent at his home with his clients’ dogs has made a big impact on all of their lives. “These kids — and all of their problems — are with you 24/7,” admits Carter. “Sometimes we’d ask [ourselves], ‘What the heck are we doing?’ Then you would see things happening, and a kid would open up and you’d see advancements made in an area. That’s why we did it!”
Carter occasionally bumps into one of the boys who helped him feed and water his dogs and travel with him to dog shows. “Just the other day I was in [a discount store] looking for old towels when I heard someone say, ‘Hey, Dad!’” shares Carter. “I turned around and it was Francis … I’ve always had a soft spot for dogs and kids.”