Walk. Sit. Heel. Trust. Communicate. Be generous with praise and support. Don’t get frustrated.
The commands were meant to train the dogs Kenai Chief Animal Control Officer Patricia Stringer and her nine new assistants were working with Aug. 22. But the context of the chain-link fence and stark concrete walls of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility, where Stringer’s assistant trainers were held in custody, gave the instructions a larger relevance in the trainers’ lives.
“When training a dog to walk on a leash, it’s important to talk to her. If you talk softly and quietly with her, she’ll be fine,” Stringer said.
Stringer’s brown animal control uniform stood out among the sea of blue youth facility garb, and her quick, sure movements in interacting with the dogs highlighted the more reserved, self-conscious approach of the students.
“She actually put her hands on him and praised him for doing a good job. That’s what you should be doing,” Stringer said, offering praise to a trainer who gave positive reinforcement to the dog she was training.
“It’s much better to be where you need to be and doing what you should be doing,” Stringer said in demonstrating how to teach a dog to heel by using treats to keep it walking alongside. “And it works with everything, especially dogs.”
The lesson is a case of better late than never for the youth facility residents. If they had been where they needed to be and did what they needed to do, they wouldn’t have ended up at the detention facility. But if they learn those lessons now, they hopefully won’t have to come back.
The animal interaction program is one of several community partnerships the youth facility is developing, where visitors come in and give training or presentations to the kids. Volunteers from the Kenai Fire Department, Kenai Peninsula Job Center, The LeeShore Center and the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska have all participated.
“I think it’s really important that there’s a connection between kids and the community,” said Joe Mooney, school facilitator at the youth facility. “Oftentimes they don’t feel a connection with their school or social lives.”
Having positive con-nections in place when youths transition out of the juvenile justice system can create a safety net to keep them from winding up back in bad situations. That’s really what it comes down to, Mooney said.
“It’s a troubled situation, not troubled kids. All kids are great when you peel all the layers back,” he said.
The youth facility is a 10-bed detention center for juveniles in criminal trouble. Youths can be housed there temporarily, usually after being taken into custody while they wait to see a judge, or on a longer-term basis during prolonged court processes. Having such a facility in Kenai keeps peninsula juvenile offenders from being sent to Anchorage or having to be placed at Wildwood.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District operates a school in the youth facility, with Mooney and a tutor teaching the multiage population. The goal is to keep students up on their education so they can transition back into mainstream schools.
The purpose of the community presenters, like Stringer with the Kenai Animal Shelter, is to offer lessons of a different kind — job skills, life skills, or a little of both.
This is Stringer’s second year volunteering at the youth facility. She comes in on Fridays, as schedules allow, bringing animals and an assistant from the shelter with her. She’s done presentations on ownership and basic care of all kinds of animals — from rodents to birds and more mainstream dogs and cats.
In August she began a six-week Canine Good Citizen training course. Youth facility students help Stringer train shelter dogs to follow commands like sit and heel, which improves their chances of being adopted. Meanwhile, the training improves the students’ chances of being better adapted to life beyond the youth facility.
“I see it as therapy for the kids, not training for the dogs. Patsy sees it as interaction for the dogs,” Mooney said.
Getting permission to bring dogs, much less ferrets or rats, to the youth facility was a trick in itself, since the state juvenile justice system has strict rules regarding such things. But Steve Kiefer, superintendent of the facility, said he sees it as a positive program.
“A lot of kids have bonds with animals at home. This gives them more tools to strengthen that relationship, and it gives them tools to lower anxiety levels and deal with stress,” he said.
The training prepares the dogs for being pets, and it prepares the students for being better pet owners.
“They’ll have a better idea what it takes, the responsibility to have a pet and know how to take care of it,” Mooney said.
On Aug. 22, at least one student clearly had experience with animals. He was able to take the rowdiest of the three dogs Stringer brought, Kip, and have him sitting, heeling and laying down.
“It just reminds me of being back. It’s fun petting them and playing with them. I haven’t been able to see my dogs for a while,” the student said.
Stringer said she likes to bring two hooligans and one of her own, already-trained dogs for the students to work with.
“So the children can at least work with one animal who is going to be responsive,” Stringer said. She wants them set up for success. “Not that the children can’t do it, they just don’t know how. Because they all have positives, every one of them.”
She could have been referring to the dogs or the students. Probably both, as Stringer often spoke to the kids and dogs with the same tone — firm yet positive, delivering specific, to-the-point instructions, and offering immediate praise for anything done right, all in her crisp English accent.
“Often the children are from difficult backgrounds. If you can get them to open themselves up by teaching them to interact with a dog in a positive manner, you get that communication with them,” Stringer said. “You teach them you can get anything with kindness and reward.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy — life or dog training.
“This is hard,” a student complained as their charge, an Australian shepherd named Trooper, seemed more interested in visiting with Stringer’s dog, Meg, than heeling.
“Of course it’s hard,” Stringer replied. “Everything in life is hard. But once you get it, it’s wonderful.”