With aid from legal community, juvenile dog-training effort offers many rewards

May 17, 2017

Superintendent Terrance Asante-Doyle has witnessed what happens when his charges at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center get to offer obedience training to dogs from Indianapolis Animal Care, who, like them, are often victims of abuse, exploitation or neglect.

“Automatically, an organic relationship is established on day one, just because the kids can recognize the animal itself is damaged, so to speak,” Asante-Doyle said of the Pawsitive Corrections Youth-Canine Program. Juveniles who are selected for the program based on behavioral incentives provide five days of hands-on training to their four-legged friends under the tutelage of trainers and volunteers.

“Every day is impactful in fostering that relationship,” he said. “They’re going to help that dog find a permanent home. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of — to recognize in the youth that they’re paying it forward.”

‘Drew me in’

Nelson Nelson

Attorney Brett Nelson is president of Paws & Think, the nonprofit that provides the training program in addition to therapy-dog initiatives. Explaining his devotion to dogs, Nelson said, “They’re not judgmental. Affection is unconditional. As long as you treat them fairly, dogs will be man’s best friend.”

So it seems natural that Nelson joined the Paws & Think board a few years ago when he was looking for a way to give back to the community. “This program drew me in,” he said. “Kids learn they can have an impact through positive reinforcement as opposed to negative, which is probably what they’ve seen a lot of in their lives.

“There’s kind of contagious enthusiasm there,” he said of the program.

Nelson, a partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, has helped secure grants and raise money for the program, including sums that converted space at the juvenile center to kennels for dogs in the program. Plews Shadley supports the program with donations and in-kind services, and Paws & Think also has received support from the Indiana State Bar Association.

Seeing changes

doggie-6-mikey-15col.jpg Mikey from Indianapolis Animal Care learns to shake. (Photo courtesy of Paws & Think)

Paws & Think director Kelsey Burton said there are very few programs like the one at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center, in part because of the short time teens typically are detained.

Canines selected for the program are screened to keep out those that show temperament issues, food aggression, or lack ability to focus. Nevertheless, Burton said, “We tend to pick dogs that are somewhat more difficult to adopt.”

Juveniles and their dogs are introduced and given training orientation when the programs start on a Monday. They then progress each day through “manners” training, teaching the canines to sit, stay, lay down, and sometimes more. As a bonus, unstructured play time is built in that helps the kids and dogs bond.

“If the kids have a lot of patience,” Burton said, “they may get them to do things the trainer may struggle with.” At the end of the program, the young trainers earn a graduation certificate, and so do their dogs. The pups return to Indianapolis Animal Care, where potential adopters will see a “diploma” filled out by the young trainers, listing the manners and skills their canine learned.

One dog’s tale

dog-boron-mug.jpg Boron

Indianapolis Animal Care kennel manager Laura Keith Williams earned a law degree but fell in love with animal welfare and made it her career. She tells the tale of Boron, “a goofy 2-year-old pit bull mix with a ton of energy” who arrived at the shelter last October, and remained there, unadoptable, until January. That’s when he received training through the program.

“Boron returned from the program and was adopted the same week,” she said. “I firmly believe that the training he was given through the JDC program enabled him to harness his energy and find a forever home. I have seen this program enrich our dogs’ lives time and time again and help us create success stories like Boron’s.”

Burton said dogs such as Boron who arrive at Animal Care may have never had basic obedience training that may make them adoptable. Dogs that come through the program “are less likely to be jumping up at gates or pulling on a leash when they’re walking outside,” she said.

Digging deeper

Paws & Think was so certain of the program’s benefits they sought out professor Eric Grommon at the IUPUI School of Public and Environmental Affairs to study and measure its effects. While the anecdotal success stories are many, tweezing out long-term data on how well the program benefits juveniles will take time.

Grommon, who’s studied the efficacy of similar programs in adult correctional settings, said he’s aware of no studies of such efforts in juvenile facilities. That’s largely due to the short periods juveniles are typically in detention and the scarcity of programs, but he’s hoping to publish an academic paper based on his research of the program in Indianapolis.

Though he said it’s too early to draw conclusions, Grommon said there is evidence to suggest the program may reduce misconduct at the center, and it may provide those chosen to participate a boost in self-esteem and empathy. But Grommon said his research revealed one thing was clear: “Hands down, when you have an open-ended question for participants, they just raved about the program,” he said. “They reject the idea that there was something to dislike at all.”

Opening up

doggie-5-mikey-15col.jpg Mikey gets a belly rub during a Paws & Think training session at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center. The program aims to make dogs at Indianapolis Animal Care more adoptable. (Photo courtesy of Paws & Think)

Wendy Hendricks, administrative assistant to Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Terry Crone, was named Paws & Think’s volunteer of the year last year, and she’s been involved in the youth-canine project since it began about five years ago. She said the program’s immediate effect on kids is obvious: “You can see the smiles on their faces, and you can see how happy they are.”

Because each dog has two young trainers, Hendricks said, the program also encourages teamwork and skill-building. “I think the dogs open up dialogue,” she said. Kids talk about what their canines learned. They ask what’s going to happen to the dogs after they leave the center.

Hendricks said what happened to a dog named Liza who graduated from the program is remarkable. Hendricks adopted her, and a few months later got the pit bull-boxer mix registered to serve as a therapy dog in Paws & Think’s programs. Also, when a new group of dogs begins training, Liza since May of 2015 has been there during orientation to greet youths who may have had little, or negative, experiences with dogs.

Liza, Hendricks said, “got a second chance through the juvenile program, and now she’s paying it back.”

Pet projects

Burton said among Paws & Think’s 300-some volunteers are many who work in the legal profession, and the profession has assisted the organization’s mission in many ways. Plews Shadley managing partner Jeff Featherstun said Nelson’s initiative was key to the firm’s support, and other organizations and efforts the firm supports tend to spring from attorneys’ involvement.

ISBA’s pro bono committee chose Paws & Think as its designated charity in 2014, as did the Utility Law Section last year. Solo and Small Firm Conference Chair Derrick Wilson of New Albany said Paws & Think therapy dogs and those from other organizations have been a staple at the gathering for years. “People always make a point of coming by and petting the dogs,” he said.

Burton said the program is appealing to volunteers and supporters who see it making a difference. “The kids and the dogs that enter the first day are not the kids and the dogs who leave,” she said.•


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