INDIANAPOLIS, IN – After she landed in prison, Keelie Burkett believed she was destined to become an addict for life. But she changed her ways with the help of another. Not a counselor, not a coach, but a dog.
Struggling with anxiety and depression, 15-year-old Keelie began abusing prescription pills to help numb the pain. From there stemmed an addiction that bounced from pills to heroin to meth for the next seven years.
At age 22, Keelie was arrested when authorities found meth inside her home.
“When I got arrested, I had the mindset of they can’t stop me. I wasn’t hurting anybody. I was just trying to have fun,” said Keelie.
Keelie never thought she’d end up in jail. But she was sentenced to three years and landed in Madison Correctional Facility.
Madison Correctional Facility wasn’t just a prison. It also gave inmates the opportunity to work. They could serve on road crews picking up trash, work in the library, cook and serve food on the kitchen staff or complete general education degrees.
Keelie was assigned to be a dorm porter, also known as the cleaning staff.
“For eight hours a day I scrubbed the stairs with a toothbrush,” said Keelie. “I figured out quite quickly that was a horrible way to spend my time.”
She searched for a new program, but none seemed to fit. Then she heard about the “dog dorm.”
At first, she was hesitant. Keelie had shared a love of dogs with her father, but she hadn’t seen him since her parents divorced when she was 10. After he disappeared, so did her love of dogs.
“It was a step for taking my power back… I’m not going to let the trauma he put me through hold me back anymore. I love dogs and I want to be involved with them so I’m going to go for it,” said Keelie.
When she joined the dog dorm program, she was assigned a dog that she had to spend all day and night with while training it. The dogs, like the inmates, were seen as outcasts of society. They were often abused, sick or aggressive and pulled from animal shelters where they were set to be euthanized.
“These really hard, tough criminals, who have had awful lives and have done really awful things, look at a dog and they see themselves in the dog,” said Keelie. “They’ve been abused, they’ve gone through things, they’ve felt rejected. That’s exactly what they see when they look at the dogs.”
Keelie successfully completed the training program with multiple dogs who were then adopted. It was clear she had a gift.
That’s why the head guard of the dog dorm assigned Keelie to Darla.
“She was by far the worst dog in the dorm. She had the most issues. She was covered in tumors. She was very sick and extremely aggressive” said Keelie. “She kept being passed around because nobody knew what to do with her.”
Keelie was horrified. She didn’t want to train Darla. But when she was given no other opportunity, she decided to give Darla a chance
Within a week, Darla made more progress than in her six months at the correctional facility. Keelie said Darla was aggressive because she was scared.
With Darla by her said, Keelie decided she didn’t want to return to drugs.
“It’s like you finally have a friend,” said Keelie. “I did not get sober because I was in prison, [drugs] were more accessible in prison than they are on the streets. I solely stayed sober because I wanted to be sober to spend time with Darla and take care of her.”
Day by day, Keelie saved up her dollar commission to pay the $60 to adopt Darla. With two months left in her prison sentence, Keelie officially adopted Darla.
On December 24, 2014, Keelie and Darla walked out of the Madison Correctional Facility together.
Following her release, Keelie got a job at a dog training facility and daycare. After learning the ropes, she realized she could start her own business. She now owns and operates Click Treat Repeat Canine Coaching.
She also voluntarily enrolled herself in a rehab program. That’s where she met her future husband.
“If somebody would’ve told me when I was sitting in that county jail that five years from now you’ll be married with a home and business that you own, I would’ve been like, ‘You are lying.’”
Today, Keelie is nearly five years sober.
“The harsh sentence didn’t save my life. The dogs saved my life.”
Best of all, she spends her days alongside Darla.