Canine Connections, a program at a Washington state juvenile-rehabilitation facility, was created in 2000 to build compassion and self-esteem in teenagers, reports the Seattle Times. Every eight weeks, dogs that were on “death row” arrive at the Echo Glen facility from area shelters. Many are skittish and ill-mannered with no basic obedience skills. The unwanted dogs are each paired with a teenager. The teens – all juvenile offenders sent for crimes ranging from drug possession to murder – learn how to train the dogs and, in the process, absorb critical life lessons.
The “handlers,” as the youths are called, are there to help the dogs heal from abuse, abandonment, and trauma and turn them into adoptable pets, said program director Jo Simpson. It’s all done through positive reinforcement – namely, praise and lots of dog treats. It’s also about building a bond. Handlers sometimes will sit alongside a dog for hours, petting the animal and reading aloud books, just to gain that trust. When it happens, the sense of accomplishment is huge, officials say. “I’ve never seen a treatment program have the impact that this does,” said Patti Berntsen, associate superintendent. “There are some very sick kids here, kids that have mental-health issues and are violent. But you can see a behavioral change after they work with the dogs. They feel like they can’t just give up on them.”