A unique program at the Marion County Youth Detention Center uses the human/animal bond to demonstrate the power of positive action.
Fannie Mae, is a 6 year-old White English Bulldog Mix. She has a big grin on her face as she pulls volunteer trainer Wendy Hendricks into the gym of the detention center. Fannie Mae's owners surrendered her at Indianapolis Animal Care and Control saying she was aggressive, but she aced a temperament test and now she’s here to learn ‒ and maybe teach ‒ some new tricks.
Waldo is 17, a dog person who has made some bad choices. He’s been at the youth detention center for about a month. The two of them recently paired up for a five-day program run by Paws and Think, a local nonprofit. Paws and Think began the Youth Canine project over 10 years ago, and it now runs once a month at the center. Jodi Vanslyke is the lead trainer. She tells the kids that in order to help the dogs they need to gain their respect and trust.
"The dogs that we’re going to be working with are not big on trust, however they got to the shelter, they've been thrown into a pen and they're just there," explains Vanslyke. "They're scared, they don't know where they're at, they have trust issues because they weren’t loved."
Waldo says he can relate.
"We’re kind of in the same position, like someone didn't want them, they did something wrong," says Waldo, "and they're in the dog pound and they don't get loved there, you know."
In Waldo’s family, dogs are partly for protection, and he says he never thought to train them to sit or stay.
"I learn something new, you know like, how to do it," says Waldo, "how to treat them, different stuff. They don't teach us this out in the street."
The program teaches basic obedience commands like sit, wait, come and down ‒ making the dogs more adoptable. The experience can also teach kids that kindness is more effective than toughness.
Waldo and nine other kids work with the dogs for only a few hours but make a quick connection. Vanslyke says she can understand where the kids are coming from and wants to share the power of the human/animal bond.
"I had a rocky childhood and dogs were my shelter in the storm, and I just know that they have a calming effect on people," says Vanslyke.
Charles Parkins, superintendent of the detention center says they are working with an IUPUI professor to conduct a study of the program’s benefits.
"I would like to see a measure of increase in compasion and empathy towards people and towards animals," says Parkins. "A meaure of self-respect, of self-reliance, learning a new skill while they are here."
A 2007 study published by the University of Illinois found that prison based animal programs may lower recidivism rates, increase self-esteem, decrease loneliness and teach marketable skills.
Parkins says the most important results may be the most intangible.
"When they come to a point in their life when they have to make a decision and they can reflect back on what they've learned here and make the right decision," explains Parkins, "those are measurements that we will never know."
On the last day, Vansylke tells the kids that what they’ve accomplished is pretty fantastic.
"You’ve taught these dogs everything that they've learned, that is no small feat," says Vansylke. "I want you to think about this experience as you go forward, you can use positive reinforcement in every relationship in your life."
The kids fill out and decorate kennel cards that are posted on the dog’s crate and they get a certificate saying they’ve completed the program. Sometimes they take these to their court hearings, demonstrating their commitment to change.
Hendricks, who has been working with Waldo and Fannie Mae all week, says the experience gives the kids a chance to let their guard down and open up.
"I think what’s really cool is to see the boys, or girls, get their confidence and come out of their shell and interact with the dog and actually have feelings for the dog and care about how much they get fed a day or how often," says Hendricks, "They all seem concerned that they have to go back to the shelter and I know a lot of them wonder and ask 'did they get adopted?'"
In fact, they do get adopted. Right now there is a nearly perfect adoption rate for the animals that complete the program, but two of the dogs from the most recent session, including Fannie Mae, are still looking for families to adopt them.
Waldo says he is interested in volunteering at Animal Care and Control, and maybe even working there some day, using his new skills to help dogs in need find forever homes.