Program gives troubled teen-agers and sheltered dogs a second chance

Reform center allows youths to train canines

January 23, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

An innovative program at the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center in Carroll County is giving errant teen-agers -- and stray dogs -- a second chance at life.

The residential center in Marriottsville will be the first in the state and one of few in the nation to conduct the pet therapy project that pairs abandoned dogs with troubled youths.

"Research tells us that a noncritical, nonjudgmental creature can enhance a child's mental health and sense of self-worth," said Catherine Carey, planner for the Department of Juvenile Justice, which places at-risk teen-agers at O'Farrell. "Our program pairs young men and shelter dogs, both abandoned by society."

O'Farrell, a residential treatment program for court-referred 13- to 18-year-old boys, has long included humane education in its curriculum.

Its pet therapy program, which involves training abandoned dogs for eventual adoption, is intended to instill a sense of responsibility and respect in the teens.

The program, Humane Education by Alternative Learning (H.E.A.L.), is funded in part through a $10,000 grant from UPS. It took two years of preparation before the first dog arrived in May.

The response from teen-agers and staff has been so positive that North American Family Institute Inc., which operates O'Farrell, might try pet therapy at its other locations.

H.E.A.L. has notched some success for the dogs, too. Bear and Midnight, two of the first three dogs to go through the 12-week training course, have been adopted. Cream, the third dog, has an excellent chance of finding a new home.

"You have a housebroken, nondestructive dog who has learned obedience in an atmosphere with 40 teen-agers," said trainer Debbie Winkler, who taught the basics of dog obedience. "It can certainly manage in an average home."

For the O'Farrell teens, all of whom have been referred to the center by the juvenile justice system, the comparisons to their own lives come easily.

"We saved their lives," said 14-year-old Truth. "We got them off the streets, showed them the right way to live and kept them safe and sound. That is basically what O'Farrell is doing for us."

Isaac, 17, said the dogs were out of options. "Without us, these dogs would have nobody," he said.

Deborah Coburn Yates, O'Farrell program director, worked two years with the state and animal welfare organizations to put together pet therapy. She knew what kind of dog she wanted.

"We were in this to save dogs' lives and change kids' lives with humane education," she said. "We wanted the strays, not the cute puppies that would easily be adopted."

Student participation is optional but limited to a team of 10 teens who work with no more than three dogs. The Humane Society of Carroll County provides the dogs.

"The dogs were at the shelter because they were abused or did something to make a person reject them and not treat them right," said 15-year-old Shawn. "It is kind of like our guys."

Student-maintained

The center has a fenced in yard, doghouses and a walking area, all student-maintained and kept in immaculate condition.

The students keep logbooks detailing the animals' care and progress. Winkler is on campus three times a week and always on call.

Whenever the students were in the dorm, so were the dogs. After a few favorite shoes and a set of headphones were lost to chewing pets, the residents learned to keep things out of reach.

"We brought them here, gave them a daily routine and fed them," said 14-year-old James. "It was discipline for us, too. We had to go through the daily routine with them."

The dogs slept in the dorm at night, supposedly in crates, but students often shared bed space with the animals.

"It was amazing to see these guys who think they are the big, bad gangsters of tomorrow cuddling with dogs," said Martin W. Lee Jr., assistant program director at O'Farrell. "Even if the dog never learned a thing, it was getting the attention it needed, and so was the kid."

For trainer and pet, there were lessons in discipline and responsibility.

"You had to get up before everybody else and take the dog out," said Terrence, 16. "We would be all ready for sleep at night and somebody would say that we gotta walk the dog."

Not giving up

Midnight, who is mostly Labrador retriever, and Bear, a shepherd mix, were gentle and adaptable, but then came the challenge of Cream, a terrier that they would have more aptly named Runaway. After several races through the woods, the students considered sending Cream back to the shelter. The dog definitely had "an authority problem," they said.

When they met with Yates, she stressed that giving up on the dog would be contrary to the philosophy of the program, which was to make the dogs adoptable.

"We are talking about throwaway dogs and for the most part, throwaway kids," said Yates. "These kids have had a lot of failures in their life. They know what their future would be if we gave up on them."

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