Rescue dogs and at-risk youth heal each other

dogsOctober is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. For those who have ever rescued a dog…thank you!  Shelter dogs are amazingly resilient animals who forgive those who surrendered them and show gratitude to those who pick them up off the streets or welcome them into their homes.

The dogs in our training program, Teacher’s Pet, are no different. Our dogs come from Macomb County Animal Control and are paired with youth through the Macomb County Juvenile Court system for 10-week training sessions. Twice a week, two hours a day, the youth learn about dog body language, stress reduction in dogs, humane education, responsible pet ownership and positive, lure and reward-based dog training techniques. The other two hours are spent training “their” dogs in basic obedience commands in the preparation of getting them adopted and more likely to remain in their homes permanently.

To date, our program (which also operates in Oakland County) has worked with more than 2,000 youth and 2,300 dogs. The program helps the youth increase their abilities to experience empathy and impulse control as well as learn perspective taking, relationship building and communication skills. Our dogs learn in-home manners as well as confidence building, socialization and are given the opportunity to exercise mentally and physically.

The staff benefit as well. Rachel Gentz, senior facilitator and trainer, loves working with the youth trainers and dogs. Her favorite part is watching the kids’ eyes light up the first time they teach their dog to do something.

“They get so excited when they realize that they can accomplish so much in such a short time; it’s amazing what they teach their dogs once they realize that if they dedicate themselves for that hour they can do almost anything,” she said. “It also shows them that if the dogs can change that quickly, they can too.”

Gentz had a young man during the last session who was outwardly affected by the videos of shelters, puppy mills and dog fighting. He not only allowed himself to be vulnerable around his peers and adults in the room, but he went on to explore careers where he could help animals and said he wants to be a lawyer to advocate for animal welfare.

For the youth, their experiences vary, yet each trainer seems to get exactly what is needed. For some, it’s experiencing a truly unconditional relationship, learning to trust, modifying body language, improving their verbal and non-verbal communication styles, having hope for their future, improving perseverance and contributing to society.

But we find that our youth can express the power of the human animal bond in a way that we cannot. Here are our top ten quotes from our youth trainers which they have written in their journals or mentioned during classroom discussions:

1)         “I learned that I am just like the dogs: from a tough background, and don’t really trust      people. But I’m getting better with it. I really do love dogs and love to see them become a       better dog, just like I’m becoming a better person.” JP
2)         “Being with the dogs made me feel better and made me a happy person. Helping a dog     that was neglected, left behind or abused makes me feel like a better person.” MG
3)         “There is a gentle, loving, caring-hearted person in me.” DL
4)         “I learned my true, loving self, that I can treat people nicely, I do care and I am a nice       person. And I am adopting a dog when I leave because I love them so much more now.”           CM
5)         “I learned that dogs are just like humans. We all have struggles, but with the right people helping us, we can make it through anything. No matter what the dogs have been through,      they still trust us to make them better.” JP
6)         “The fact that we save dogs’ lives is my favorite part of the program.” DC
7)         “I learned that dogs help calm me down and I’m less anxious when I’m with them.” RK
8)         “I learned that dogs really pull emotions out of you, and when you’re depressed or angry,             they cheer you up!” KM
9)         “I learned that I can help dogs and save their life with the help that I am giving. I also       learned that I can do so many things to help out dogs in good ways.” BF
10)       “I liked everything about the dog program. The staff were so encouraging and nice to       me. They believed in me!” KC

For more information about Teacher’s Pet, please visit www.teacherspetmi.org, like us on Facebook or contact Amy Johnson at amy.johnson@teacherspetmi.org.

Amy Johnson is the director of Teacher’s Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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