Archive for August, 2009

‘Teacher’s Pet’ program changes destiny of kids, dogs

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

I LOVE this story!! It was posted from USA Today on July 21, 2009. Enjoy!

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By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY

When teens are troubled, when they tread more often than not on the wrong side of doing the right thing, when they can’t seem to dredge up any interest in school or parental advice, or preparing to be contributing members of society, it’s easy to conclude that nothing can reach them.

They’re heart-of-stone kids, we figure, with mile-high barriers erected to protect whatever small measure of softness, empathy or willingness to connect might exist deep within them.

And that settles that. End of story.

Except Amy Johnson was certain that simply isn’t the case.

She knows something about reaching kids, since she has a teaching background. And then there’s that little something else about her background — a few years working with the Michigan Humane Society as well as training as a dog trainer — that convinced her that combining her two specialties could make a difference.

A student trainer works with Jewell in the Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together program, which links destined-for-euthanasia dogs with emotionally impaired students. Both trainers and dogs learn and benefit. Photo by Amy Johnson

A student trainer works with Jewell in the Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together program, which links destined-for-euthanasia dogs with emotionally impaired students. Both trainers and dogs learn and benefit. Photo by Amy Johnson

She did some research. Got her thoughts together. Approached some Michigan school superintendents, proposing a program in which some of the kids who were floundering badly and were at high risk of dropping out would train dogs for a few weeks. Maybe helping a dog that needed it could turn those kids around, she thought. Maybe that would give kids the kind of success they needed to feel better about themselves and everything else.

The superintendent in Waterford bit.

In the three years since then, her non-profit Teacher’s Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together program has linked 42 destined-for-euthanasia dogs with 42 students from Kingsley Montgomery School, a day treatment center/alternative school for junior high and high school youth with emotional and/or cognitive issues.

And it turns out her suspicions were correct. The program seems to have helped kids and canines in almost equal measure. All of the rescued dogs plucked from shelters and trained through the program have been adopted into new homes; most of the emotionally impaired kids who have rehabilitated them have new attitudes, new leases on life.

“The dogs come with behavior problems, and these kids can instantly relate to them,” says Johnson, who has a full-time job as marketing coordinator at Oakland University and does this Teacher’s Pet program as a part-time sideline without pay.

Almost immediately the kids chosen for the program have developed tight bonds with the animals. “Something warm and fuzzy reached these kids who no one else could get to.”

Buddy gives as much love and attention as he gets, and his trainer supplies plenty of it. Photo by Amy Johnson

Buddy gives as much love and attention as he gets, and his trainer supplies plenty of it. Photo by Amy Johnson


In each of the 10-week cycles of teens training dogs that have been conducted at the school so far, “the teachers and social workers noticed a change in the kids almost immediately,” Johnson says. “One of the kids last fall would tell everybody, ‘This program changed my life.’ He graduated. He believes now that he really does have things he can contribute.”

The kids and dogs work together two times a week, two hours per session. Johnson does Dog 101 instruction, then advances to talking about how dogs deal with stress, how people can read dogs’ body language, and how dealing with the animal in a positive rather than a negative way builds its confidence, removes its defensiveness and nurtures a willingness to learn and bloom.

“I never say, ‘All this is to make you a better person,’ but they figure it out,” Johnson says. “They know they’ve messed up. One girl actually said, ‘I get that we’re like the dogs.’ ”

This being real life, not all of the kids in the program have experienced a storybook ending. They have a few hours a week with the dogs “and then some go home to their questionable environments,” Johnson says. “But most have done well. They’ve improved relationships, learned patience. Many have transitioned back to their home school.”

There’s enough belief in the little program that’s changing lives that Planet Dog and Banfield Charitable Trust have sent some much-needed funding to support it, and three lock-up facilities for teens have had Johnson launch her program there (40 kids and about 30 rescued dogs have participated so far).

She also is running a summer camp, called Kamp K9 for Kids, for nearly 40 sixth to ninth-graders so they can learn many of the same dog-handling-related facts of life.

Johnson, of course, has dreams … dreams of “more people to help more kids and dogs.”

Her goals, she acknowledges, are “lofty,” and the means of achieving them, at this point, are “somewhat vague.” But then again, four years ago there was no program, no non-profit, no board and limited interest in what she was proposing.

Things have moved forward, she believes, for a simple reason:

“If you learn to communicate with a dog, you’re well on the way to being able to communicate with everyone.”

BARK AT US
Sharon L. Peters is an award-winning pet journalist who lives in Colorado. You can e-mail her at pets@usatoday.com.