Juvenile detainees learn empathy by training dogs

By Theresa Schmidt - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA(KPLC) The story of a dog named Puppy, slain by a young man wielding a Samurai sword struck a nerve with many in the community.  Some believe such youth commit such acts because they never learned empathy for other living creatures.

That's part of the thought behind the program at Calcasieu Juvenile detention where troubled youth rescue scared and sad stray dogs.  The kids learn that rehabilitating the dogs is also a pathway toward their own redemption.  And, then the happy pups are adopted by a family just returning from 15 months active duty in Afghanistan, continuing the cycle of rehabilitation and redemption.

Meet Chris and Crystal. They were at one time sad, skittish, strays who came here to Calcasieu Juvenile Detention where they found love, caring and rehabilitation from troubled youth. Youth who, through the program they call New Leash on Life, are learning caring and responsibility for other living creatures. Says one sixteen year old detainee, "I get up in the morning and I go feed him and all that. And before I go to sleep at night I feed him. We clean the cage twice a day, feed him twice a day."  He admits being responsible for the dog is teaching him life lessons. "I've come to understand how the dog feels. I can understand whenever they're scared and frightened because some of the dogs were abused before they came to the program. It's helping me understand that I've got a role in life."

It will be hard to say goodbye to the dogs. "It's going to hurt because I kind of bonded with this one," says the youth.

Yet the dogs are going to the loving home of newlyweds Steven and Krista Gainey. Steven is a soldier whose just returned from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan and for him the dogs represent the start of a happy family. "I'm hoping that having these two will increase the happiness level that I already have and just create a great home family situation."

Coordinator Beth Zilbert says it's a win win situation for the dogs and the youth who are learning empathy that will serve them in their dealings with people. "The training program here uses only positive reinforcement and rewards. There's no punishment. Hands are only allowed to be used for giving out treats and love. And you can see that the kids in the program are learning that that's a new way to solve all the problems in their lives not just how to get a dog to sit."

And so Chris and Crystal, Steve and Kkrista head to fort polk where he's stationed thankful for their new family additions and a program that represents hope for future pets and troubled youth. Since the new leash on life program started 73 children at juvenile detention have worked with 36 dogs who have now been placed in loving homes.

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