Teens Help Train Shelter Dogs
Updated: Feb 21
I just completed volunteering at a two-week class with k9 connection- a Los Angeles based non-profit that pairs at-risk teens with shelter dogs. It is one of 10 projects under the parent agency, The People Concern. Over the course of two weeks (most programs last three weeks), the teens train shelter dogs helping the dogs to become more adoptable. What also happens is that the teens grow in emotional intelligence (the effects have been quantitatively studied) during their time with the dogs.
The program starts with six teens and six dogs. Often a few are adopted along the way. This session, two of the dogs were adopted in the first week and four remain. We all fell in love with them and want to see them find great homes - so please look up my Pet People Planet Connection Facebook page for information about these fabulous (and now trained!) dogs. When a dog gets adopted during the program a “staff dog” joins the group so that the teen handler has a dog to work with.
Here’s a day-by-day overview of how the two-week program was structured. In general, the
day starts out with dog training for the first hour followed by an hour of classroom time where the dogs hang out with their teen handler, accompanied by a volunteer or peer leader.
The six students joined us in the courtyard for introductions. In addition to the Program Director, Juliet, the Program Assistant, Margaret, and the dog trainer, Sharon, k9 connection utilizes volunteers and peer leaders (graduates of the k9 connection program) to assist during the session. We all had a chance to meet and greet.
Additionally, a skilled former high school teacher and k9 volunteer joined the program to guide the students as their facilitator during the classroom portions. Her name is Les and before we even saw any dogs, she started the program with a discussion about the difference between expectations and intentions. She also led a short chocolate meditation to open the student’s awareness to the concept of Mindfulness.
Later on, Les taught us another kind of breathing meditation called a box meditation. I noticed that kids seemed a little nervous yet excited about all of the newness, which is only to be expected.
Then the dogs showed up! The students and dogs did “speed dating” to see which dogs they thought they might like to work with. One young woman who is clearly terrified of dogs is facing her fears! She was really skittish around the big dogs but more comfortable with the little ones. After speed dating, while the program directors were deciding which students would be paired with which dogs, the volunteers and students took the dogs for a nice walk in the neighborhood. When we returned the students learned which dog they would be teaming up with for the remainder of the program. Then the dogs were loaded up in the van and went back to the shelter and rescue group where they live.
We found out that one of the students had to drop out of the program. Such a bummer, but certainly lucky for the alternate student who got to take her place.
The dogs arrived and the volunteers brought them out to the training area on the field where each dog had a designated towel. The first thing we did every day was lead the dogs from towel to towel so they could sniff and familiarize themselves with the other dogs without actually making contact. Sharon the trainer then taught the students how to properly hold a leash with the dog on their left, using their left hand to steer (lower down on the leash, closer to the collar) while the other end of the leash crosses their body and is looped over the right hand. Then the students were shown how to train the dogs to “sit” (by lifting a hand with a treat in it toward your shoulder and “making a muscle”, which guides the dog’s head up and butt down), as well as “touch”. With “touch” the dogs touch their nose to your hand and get a treat.
The instruction included the nuance of giving treats to the dogs even when they didn’t do it perfectly. The dogs were trying and rewarding effort was key. Plus sometimes the older dogs have back issues and on any given day sitting, for example, might be uncomfortable. This idea was valuable for the students to hear, reinforcing that they too are rewarded for effort. After training was done for the day, we all walked a lap around the track.
During the classroom hour, we reviewed expectations and intentions. The students were
asked to set an intention of something they would do between today and tomorrow (i.e spend time with family, do homework etc.). We also learned a bit of Qigong (a form of Chinese yoga that involves deep breathing and stretching) by following along with a video clip. We discussed the difference between Sympathy and Empathy and were treated to Brene Brown’s animated video on empathy.
To help deepen our understanding of empathy we played a few games. The first game offered a possible life situation and some responses. Only one response was truly empathetic and the students had to figure out which it was. They did great. In the next game, one student was pretending to be a dog that had not yet learned basic commands. That student left the room and the remaining students chose a command for the dog. Upon returning the pretend dog student had to guess what was being asked of them. They did well.
Lastly, each student was paired with a volunteer or peer leader. Each person had a chance to share an embarrassing thing that happened at some point in their life and the other person practiced listening and being empathetic. Then we switched roles.
As usual we started the outside training time with towel sniffing and then learned how to teach our dogs the “down” command and “come when called”. After training, we were treated to a drum circle. Everyone got to choose their own instrument and it was another opportunity to be mindful and try something new. Felix, the drum circle leader was fabulous and showed us all how to not only play our instruments but also get lost in the experience of playing together.
Today, instead of training, we took a field trip to West Los Angeles shelter where three of our
six dogs live. The students had never been to a shelter before and it was eye-opening seeing how many dogs, cats, rabbits (and more) live there. We found the k9 connection dogs- Peabody the senior Beagle, Jill the pit bull mix and Stuart the gentle soul pit bull type dog. By the end of the visit, we were able to bring the k9 connection dogs out of their kennels for a short playtime in the big yard.
During training the student/dog teams worked on “sit/down/sit” (as one command), “come when called” and leading their dogs through the tunnel, preparing for the agility course. After training, the students made posters to help the dogs they’ve been teamed up with gain some extra attention at the shelter. They included positive attributes about their dogs, photos etc.
When people approach a k9 connection dog’s kennel, they learn that this dog has been in a training program, socialized and more. The students had an opportunity to share about their experience at the shelter. All of them were sad that their dogs, and so many others were living there and didn’t live with a family. They were motivated to adopt a dog and help spread the word about dog adoption. It was a great learning experience for everyone.
Today we worked on “come when called” using a 20 foot leash called a long line. At first the
bouncy dogs ran right past the students. But with practice and some fine-tuning, everyone (human and dog) improved.
Then we started practicing the hurdles. Mouse, the black Chihuahua, despite his diminutive size jumped over a 4 inch bar. And Maribel the Pomeranian? Well, we had to take the bar all the way down for her. That’s ok though. She still went over the bar!
During indoor class time we learned about prejudice and micro-aggression giving examples and then offering ways to let the other person know that that’s not cool.
We also noted that some dog breeds, including our very own pit bull dog Stuart might look scary but he’s really a sweetheart. Some of the students could relate.
We reviewed long line “come when called”, and did some more agility. The dogs had to jump over hurdles and then go through the tunnel…putting the whole agility course together!
In the classroom we were treated to an improv class, led by an improv teacher! We discussed how improv can help people think on their feet which would be great for any new social situation, or a job interview, citing a few examples. The students played a few games where they role-played and had to think on their feet. I was so impressed with how creative some of the kids got.
We reviewed many of the commands and did a double agility course! This is how they will perform during graduation- just two days away. Each day the dogs are learning but some days some of the dogs, especially the older ones aren’t up to full participation. The students were reminded that we are all different every day as are the dogs, so we meet them where they are. In the classroom, we learned how to do a nostril breathing meditation using either the left or right nostril to achieve different outcomes; the different techniques also relate to the right and left sides of the brain. I have to say, this was all new to the students and they were good sports and participated in everything.
After the meditation, the students wrote their graduation speeches! They had former speeches to refer to for ideas and format and the volunteers were there to help give them a little extra support if necessary.
Dress rehearsal. Out on the field, we did a final run through of the skills the dogs learned, the agility course and the speeches. One of the staff dogs is super bird and small animal motivated and has trouble focusing. Her student handler did a superb job getting her to focus during “come when called’ and I was sure to let him know that he played a big part in her success. She was one of the dogs who went flying right past him on the first day. Massive improvement for everyone. There was no classroom time that day as the dress rehearsal took up the majority of the class. Then we had a pizza party.
Graduation. The big day! I was excited that I got to see how far the students had come in
just two short weeks. They were empowered by having learned to train dogs. They were more empathic having visited the shelter and having a better understanding of what it means to be a homeless dog. They had all accomplished something new and wonderful and were getting ready to display what they had learned in front of their family and peers. They showed off the skills they taught their dogs. They beautifully led their dogs through the agility course.
Each student gave a short graduation speech- for most of them this was the first time ever giving a speech. They shared their dreams and goals for the future and received a certificate of completion. And yes, I cried. The whole process was beautiful.
Hopefully, this experience has a lasting effect on the teenagers. And hopefully, the extra training helps these wonderful dogs quickly find new homes. We celebrated with a little party and then the dogs went back to the shelter. One of the girls had tears running down her face as she said goodbye to her little dog. And another, while not visibly crying, waited at the dog van until it was time to go to get one more look at the dog he had bonded with over the last two weeks.
In his speech, he promised to do his best to help her find a home. I trust that he will.
If you are interested in learning more about k9 connection, you can visit their website: www.k9connection.org; there is a page about how to become a volunteer and you can contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you are interested in starting your own k9 connection type organization, you can find out about receiving their Start-Up Manual in exchange for making a small donation. You can also keep up with the latest events and activities by visiting their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/k9connection.CA
Photo Credits: Les Klein and Margaret Winn
This article originally published on Diane’s blog here: https://www.dianerosesolomon.com/teens-help-train-shelter-dogs/