Since 2001, Paws & Think has been impacting communities in Central Indiana with our mission of improving lives through the power of the human-dog connection. One of the ways that we are able to support those in our community who need it most is through our Youth-Canine programs, where vulnerable youths are paired up with shelter dogs for a weeklong positive reinforcement training class that benefits the youths and the dogs. The goals of this program include instilling positive life skills in the youths and increasing adoption rates for the shelter dogs. Since 2013, our Youth-Canine programs have served over 520 vulnerable youths and 260 shelter dogs.
Paws & Think’s longest standing Youth-Canine program is the Pawsitive Corrections Youth-Canine Program, a partnership between Paws & Think, the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center, and Indianapolis Animal Care Services. For this program, Paws & Think’s trained temperament tester selects dogs from Indianapolis Animal Care Services to participate in the training class at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center. An empty cell block is used to house the dogs for the week, and the dogs get a much-needed vacation from the crowded chaos of the shelter. Each cell is transformed into kennels so that each dog has a safe and secured space to sleep.
During the week of the program, incarcerated juvenile offenders are paired up with the shelter dogs, and together each pair learns the basics of positive reinforcement obedience training. Paws & Think’s professional dog trainer leads the class, and the youths work through a series of exercises with their dogs to teach them basic commands. Paws & Think volunteer coaches act as mentors to help guide the youths and instill a foundation of positive learning that leads to success for both the youth and the dog.
At the end of the week, each youth makes a graduation card for their dog that is displayed on the dog’s kennel when it goes back to the adoption floor at Indianapolis Animal Care Services. The card indicates the commands and skills that the dog has mastered to help increase the dog’s chances of finding a permanent home. In 2017, the Pawsitive Corrections Youth-Canine Program celebrated a 100% placement rate for dogs that participated for the year, meaning that all dogs were adopted after they graduated from the training program.
In the past two years, Paws & Think has been able to expand our Youth-Canine programming beyond the Pawsitive Corrections Program, partnering with Warren Central High School and local foster-based rescues for the PAWs (Pups and Warriors) Program and bringing together Fishers Youth Assistance Program and the Humane Society For Hamilton County for the Hamilton County Youth-Canine Program.
With the support of our volunteers and donors, we continue to be able to help both at-risk youth and dogs to make our community a better place.
Tarzan’s eyes were laser focused on the small ball in Chad Shuman’s hands. It was the dog’s turn at the Indiana State Fair Dock Diving Competition. The crowd was roaring and the smell of fair food filled the air, but the ball was the only thing that existed to Tarzan in that moment.
Right on cue, he begins to run the several feet down the platform as his owner throws the ball toward the water. Tarzan leaps off the platform and several feet across the pool before finally making his way back down to earth with a massive splash.
It’s hard to imagine that not even one year earlier, Tarzan didn’t know how to obey even the most basic of obedience commands.
Before being adopted by Shuman, Tarzan was living at the Humane Society for Hamilton County (HSHC) as a shelter dog. But in August 2017, he was chosen to be one of 5 shelter dogs chosen to participate in the first session of Paws & Think’s Hamilton County Youth-Canine Program.
The program pairs at-risk youth from Hamilton Youth Assistance Program with shelter dogs to train them on basic obedience, improving their adoptability. For the program, Tarzan had been paired with a teen named Liam.
But on day 1, Tarzan was having none of it. He struggled in new environments, and refused to follow any of Liam’s commands. But Liam had an idea.
“What if I give him a ball?” he asked, thinking that a toy might help Tarzan focus.
It worked. “Just like that, he connected with that dog,” said Executive Director, Kelsey Burton.
Although Liam had broken through with Tarzan, it wasn’t completely smooth sailing. Tarzan still had his stubborn moments when he decided to “quit” his training for the day and lay down on the floor. But Liam never gave up. In those moments, he would “lay down next to him and would pet him and love on him and just kind of start to teach Tarzan that it was okay to trust another person,” said Burton.
Liam’s persistence paid off for both him and Tarzan. He kept working to build trust with Tarzan throughout the week, and by the end of the 5 day program, Tarzan was thriving, even jumping through hula hoops.
But it wasn’t just Tarzan that had grown. Liam had also made huge strides during the week, going from “not even being able to be in the room” at the beginning of the session to “being a leader, and demonstrating that,” said Tricia Straus, an Advocate with the Fishers Youth Assistance Program.
“He was probably our star of our program from the standpoint that he benefited the most,” said Burton. She explained how Liam gained confidence through the process of taking a scared shelter dog like Tarzan and through persistence, finally earning his trust. “He taught the dog those skills. That was totally him and he can have that accomplishment,” Burton said.
By the end of the week, it was time for Liam and Tarzan to part ways. Burton remembers how Liam stretched out the goodbye as long as possible. “All the other kids had left and Liam had asked if he could come with us to walk Tarzan back to the Humane Society,” she said. “And he walked over and you could just tell he didn’t want to let that leash go.”
Liam even wrote a letter to Tarzan’s future owner with advice on how to be the best possible pet parent to Tarzan. One insightful piece of advice that Liam included – “His favorite toy by far is his ball.”
Tarzan was soon adopted by Chad Shuman. As an athlete, Shuman had been looking for a dog that could join him on his runs. “I was kind of thinking a dog that could go and run and be active with me, and he is a champion at that,” he explains.
Paws & Think will be piloting a new Youth-Canine program this year in partnership with Hamilton County Youth Assistance Program (HCYAP) and the Humane Society for Hamilton County. The new Hamilton County Youth-Canine Program will be held two times in 2017, and the inaugural program starts this week. The program will be led by Paws & Think’s Youth-Canine Coordinator, Kim Trimpe, and each training team will consist of two high school aged students, one dog, and one adult Paws & Think volunteer who will act as a mentor for the youth. This new program will follow the same model as our other Youth-Canine programs, with the goals of teaching valuable life skills to the youth and increasing chances of permanent adoption for the dogs.
HCYAP provides programs that promote positive growth and enhance home and community relationships for at-risk youth in Hamilton County. Teens who are facing challenging life circumstances have been selected by HCYAP staff to participate in our Youth-Canine program pilot with the goal that the program will teach them about opportunities to make their lives better. Youths will learn the value of working together towards a common goal, and our Paws & Think mentor volunteers will help to demonstrate that kindness and positive reinforcement can produce results and pave the way towards opportunities and success. Training sessions will include discussions about leadership, trust, empathy, safety, and will focus on positive reinforcement training for the dogs.
The Hamilton County Youth-Canine Program is the first program of its kind to bring together Paws & Think, HCYAP, and the Humane Society for Hamilton County. The second round of the pilot program will take place in the fall. Paws & Think is also currently working with Dr. Eric Grommon from IUPUI to develop statistical measures for our Youth-Canine programs to better quantify the positive impact of these programs to our community.