Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pawsitive Works Pairs At Risk Youth With Shelter Dogs

Seven years ago Karen Schumacher visited a prison in Washington and saw inmates interacting with dogs. She was intrigued.

“It was amazing to watch,” said Schumacher explaining that the human-animal connection builds trust and contributes to the mental and physical wellness of the prisoners.

The experience motivated her to begin Pawsitive Works, a six-week program that links youths in the juvenile probation program with shelter dogs. The goal of the program is to instruct the youths to recognize behavioral issues in the dogs and use behavior modification and positive reinforcement tools to modify not only the dog’s behavior but the child’s as well.

The result is an increased self-esteem for the child and a respect for the needs of others – and of course a dog that is more likely to be adopted due to his good behavior.

To begin, Schumacher and other professionals spent the last several years researching educational materials that are compatible to both the children and the dogs and established guidelines to keep both the kids and dogs safe.

The curriculum for Pawsitive Works was the result of a collaboration of many, including Rhonda Hamerslough who has her Ph.D. in education and Jackie Crawford who is a family and youth therapist.

The pilot program was finally put into action in Boundary County last February linking youths from Boundary County with animals from area shelters.

The program, which is funded through donations and is beginning to receive some grants, was deemed a huge success.

“The first couple of sessions we review (the dog’s) body language,” said Schumacher. The youths look at photos as well as observe dogs from the shelters and learn to identify when a dog may be weary, excited, over stimulated or stressed.

The animals and youths are matched up according to their personality traits.

“If we have a hyper young person who has a hard time focusing, it would be wonderful to match that youth with a dog who may also have a hard time staying focused,” said Schumacher, explaining that the young person will need to slow down and focus their own behavior to help the dog do the same.

The probation department refers the youth to the program, and applications are submitted to Pawsitive Works.

“As an organization we have the right to question whether a particular child would be a good fit for the program,” said Schumacher. “But the probation officers really are in the best position to assess who would be the best candidates.”

Schumacher said the program will be sold to various entities, and she and her staff will continue to provide support.

“We will always be available to help and consult,” said Schumacher.

Because animal shelters typically do not have much in the way of discretionary funds, the county purchases the program and the shelter contributes in a variety of ways.

Schumacher said the shelters in Bonner and Boundary counties have agreed to hold the animals in their facility for the duration of the program, even if they are adopted midway through the class. It provides stability for the animals during the training process.

“Shelters are overcrowded everywhere so that is asking a lot of them,” said Schumacher.

She and her colleagues will track the progress of both the animals and the youths to determine the long-term effects of the program. They will be in contact with the probation officers to see whether the youths have reoffended or violated the terms of their probation.

With the pilot program hailed a success in Boundary County, a six-week program began last week in Bonner County. Four youths on probation will partner with dogs from area shelters.

During the pilot program Schumacher says one of the participants, a young man, was initially uncommunicative giving only monosyllabic answers. But by the third session he was rolling around on the ground and playing with the dog and at the fourth session he was interacting and providing suggestions for behavior modification.

“It was a real breakthrough and very heartwarming,” Schumacher said.

Pawsitive Works is currently forming its board of directors and is always in need of volunteers. If interested in serving on the board or volunteering, contact Karen Schumacher at(208) 946-3883or log onto www.

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