Jason Bertrand is an emotional man. He sobs when recounting his past and the guilt that still plagues him. He sobs when talking about his dog, Sugar Mama, who saved him. Talking to him, one gets the impression of a kind, vulnerable human being with so much human feeling inside, he can barely contain it.
But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was never the case — until an organization named Pit Sisters and its program, TAILS, brought an injured pit bull rescued from dogfighting into his life — and not only changed Bertrand’s life, but changed him, fundamentally and irrevocably.
After 15 years in prison for robbery and battery, Jason Bertrand of Florida says he’d lost all his humanity. He spent five of those years at different times in solitary confinement with basically no human interaction. “I can’t explain to anybody what it’s like to be alone 15 years straight,” he told This Dogs Life. “It’s a harsh, cruel environment that doesn’t do anything to help anyone, and you can get lost in it.”
He survived by shutting down his emotions and becoming the kind of man that other men are afraid of. “You’re either scared and victimized, or you’re tough,” he says. “I was dangerous, because I felt that I needed to be, and that’s how you lose yourself.”
But on April 20, 2016, Jason Bertrand’s life changed. He was accepted into the TAILS program (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills), which brings at-risk shelter dogs together with qualified inmates who will train and socialize them to prepare the dogs for adoption as family pets. This is where he met Sugar Mama, a 2-year-old pit bull who had been rescued from a dogfighting ring in Putnam County, Florida. “This dog changed my life,” Bertrand says. “She has been my saving grace.”
Bertrand was Sugar Mama’s saving grace, too.
When Sugar Mama was rescued from dogfighting, she was in extremely bad shape. She had three herniated discs in her spine that caused severe pain. “She was also very scared,” says Jen Deane, the founder of Pit Sisters. Her organization got to work raising the funds for the $5,000 surgery that would allow her to walk again
After her surgery, canine aggression expert Jim Crosby assessed Sugar Mama and agreed she deserved a second chance. However, when Sugar Mama began coming out of her shell, it became clear that she had zero training, says Deane. “In order for her to go to a home and stay there, she needed some basic manners, so we chose her for our TAILS program.”
By that time, Bertrand was at the end of his sentence. In 2016, he was transferred to Florida’s Jacksonville Bridge Community Release Center to help him rejoin the outside world. That’s where he had the opportunity to participate in the TAILS program, and he was matched with Sugar Mama. “Their connection was instant love,” says Deane. “He treated her like a princess. He would not let her feet touch the ground unless they were training. He carried her everywhere.”
The Sugar Mama Effect
Bertrand explains that he was set up for failure from the beginning of his life, and that’s something he shares with his dog. They were both caged and surrounded by people with bad intentions. They were both damaged. The only difference, he says, is that Sugar Mama did not deserve anything that happened to her. “Some ignorant human being took her and used her for his own personal needs,” he says.
When Bertrand first met Sugar Mama, she was still recovering from her surgery. She had fresh scars. But despite everything that happened to her, the dog was playful and exuberant. She still had a loving personality. And that, Bertrand says, empowered him. He realized that his past did not have to determine his happiness. And Sugar Mama knew this, without having “to sit down and have a discussion with anyone.” The happiness of finding herself in a better place was all she needed to move on. “It made me wonder why I had to be so angry and resentful when a dog with basic instincts learned how to get over it,” he says.
While Bertrand worked on Sugar Mama’s basic training and doggie manners, he began to realize that he would have to go through major changes as an inmate to become a civilian. He needed the courage to confront the people and situations around him that were a negative influence.
“When I got into the program, different emotions that I wasn’t used to having started to come up,” says Bertrand. “Love. Affection. Patience.” In prison, he explains, you get angry and you act out with violence. “You can’t do that with a dog. You have to learn a whole new lifestyle.”
The program teaches its participants skills that go beyond dog training and care, skills that inmates do not learn in prison. “In prison they take care of you,” Bertrand explains. Prison provides an inmate with food, electricity, clothes. “All you have to do is show up, and they give to you, but in real life, they don’t give you nothing.”
The TAILS program teaches inmates how to be responsible. “It’s about being part of a team. It’s about showing up when you’re supposed to,” says Bertrand. “Yes, it’s about getting up at 5 am to put food in the dog bowl, but that’s just the superficial level. It’s a lot deeper than the superficial.”
In December of 2016, Bertrand was set to graduate from the program four months after Sugar Mama would graduate, meaning his last days in prison would be without her. And that was unthinkable. “My dog was pertinent towards my humanity,” he says.
Though an inmate who graduated the program close to his release was allowed to adopt his dog, he would have to send the dog home to his family to care for the canine. But Bertrand didn’t have a family to send her to; he didn’t even have a home. “I told Jen [Deane] that I would live under a bridge to keep her with me,” he recalls.
So, the program made an exception. Sugar Mama stayed with Bertrand until his release. She slept in his bed, though she wasn’t supposed to, because he refused to allow her to sleep on a hard floor anymore.
Today, Bertrand, 35, is married to a middle-school sweetheart that he reconnected with during the last six months of his incarceration. He owns a home and a car. He has a job that he works hard at in order to be successful.
“I’m not ashamed of my criminal record, because it’s really a powerful thing for me,” he says. “I know that I have to work 10 times harder than somebody who’s average in order to maintain and keep a job because if I’m not good, I’m disposable.”
Sugar Mama, now 4, is still his greatest motivator. He still carries her up and down stairs to protect her back. “My dog allowed me to feel sympathy again and emotion and love and with all that came all the other good stuff,” says Bertrand. “I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. I want to help. Because Sugar Mama taught me how to be human again.”