Tonka is a 6-month-old Great Dane. He spends his days riding around in a heavy duty wagon with thick rubber tires, pulled around by residents of the Women’s Reentry Center in Bangor who talk to him, groom him and take care of him. The dog has become the program’s mascot and a star among the center’s 36 residents.
The center is a program of the Maine Department of Corrections and operated through a contract with Volunteers of America Northern New England. Residents in the program must have served at least 120 days of their sentence and have approximately one year left to serve.
Program residents previously were inmates of the Women’s Center in Windham, sentenced for nonviolent crimes. The Women’s Reentry Center is designed to help women make the transition from state correctional facilities to their home communities. They volunteer at area facilities, go to college and do needlework for charitable organizations. Residents also participate in a service dog training program.
And what has Tonka done to deserve such attention — besides being a gorgeous dog?
Well, for one thing, the huge canine has survived in spite of big odds against him. Tonka, said his owner Judy Keyser, a residential manager who works at the center, became partially paralyzed when he was 4 days old after his mother died.
Told that the puppy was too ill to survive, Keyser was advised to have him euthanized, but she decided against it. And since it was impossible to leave the helpless puppy home alone, she brought him to work with her each day at the center where he was fed, cuddled, petted and his will to live bolstered — which, as it turned out, became a source of joy for center residents.
“Tonka really brought everyone in this building together,” Keyser said.
“I just love him,” said Nancy (not her real name), a center resident, who towed Tonka into the corridor to show him off. “He’s everybody’s kid.” Nancy is one of the women who takes care of Tonka. The experience, she said, has been the catalyst for her to plan a career working with animals after she is released.
The brown-and-white dog with a regal bearing seemed to know that he enjoys special status in the hearts of the women at the center. “We taught him to walk,” Nancy said, proudly. Not easily, or steadily, but with help he can stand and take steps.
Soon, Tonka will undergo surgery expected to improve his condition somewhat. Keyser said veterinarians in Newport and Pittsfield have been especially encouraging and helpful in taking care of the dog’s health.
“Tonka does a lot for morale here,” Nancy said. “He woofs at you if it’s a bad day and someone cries. So we have to stop crying because we don’t want Tonka upset, too. He has overcome so much. I look at him and think if he can survive what he’s been through, then I can survive what I’ve been through, too.”